It is easy to be disappointed by the news that this year’s 20 nominees for the Academy Awards for leading and supporting actors and actresses included no nonwhite nominees — for the second year in a row.
It is tougher to figure out what to do about it. The hashtag movement #OscarsSoWhite popped up for the second year on Twitter. Jada Pinkett Smith, apparently miffed that her husband Will Smith’s widely praised performance in “Concussion” was passed over, said on Martin Luther King Jr. Day that she would not attend the Oscars and encouraged others to join her.
Spike Lee, whose movie “Chi-Raq” also was passed over, joined in. So did Will Smith, who told ABC News he was out of the country when his wife posted her decision online and he wished she had given him a “heads-up,” but nevertheless said he supported her decision.
I understand their frustration, but best actress nominee Charlotte Rampling was not entirely wrong when she complained that the #OscarsSoWhite protest sounded “racist to whites.” She later apologized for her inflammatory wording, but let’s face it: She said what a lot of other people are still thinking.
Yet, rest assured, none of the #OscarsSoWhite advocates for increased diversity has called for racial “quotas,” even though Rampling’s French interviewer seemed to have that impression.
Bold discrimination against whites would further damage the Oscars’ already embattled brand and prestige as much as allegations of discrimination against nonwhites have done.
I, for one, don’t want to see people of color given awards simply because of their race or ethnic group. But I don’t want to see them excluded because of their race or ethnic group either.
Yet, as often happens with these clashes between cultures, this Oscars controversy presents both problems and an opportunity to expand diversity beyond race in their judging process.
It is shocking, for example, to see the demographic statistics of the approximately 6,000 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members who vote for the Oscars. In 2012 a Los Angeles Times study found 94 percent of the voting members were white, 77 percent were male and 64 percent were found to be over age 60.
Nothing against seniors, especially because I’m one of them, but the academy’s voting members appear to be about two generations older than the most frequent group of moviegoers. That could help explain why watching the Oscar ceremonies has become less enjoyable for many viewers than complaining about who didn’t win.
Seizing this opportunity, the academy’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, herself an African-American, announced changes approved by the academy’s board of governors with the aim of doubling the numbers of women and racial-ethnic minorities in the academy’s membership by 2020.
The current Oscar “whiteout,” as some are calling it, is particularly disappointing because it follows more than a decade of encouraging racial breakthroughs at the annual ceremonies.
In 2005, for example, black actors including Morgan Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby”), Don Cheadle (“Hotel Rwanda”) and Sophie Okonedo (also “Hotel Rwanda”) earned a record five of the 20 nominations.
In that year, Jamie Foxx also became the first black performer to receive two nominations in the same year — for “Ray” and “Collateral.”
Three years before that, Halle Berry became the first black woman to win the best actress award — for “Monster’s Ball” — and Denzel Washington for “Training Day” became the first black winner of the best actor honor since Sidney Poitier in 1963 for “Lilies of the Field.”
But just as electing an African-American president did not, by any means, end racial divisions in America, Hollywood can’t rest on its past Oscar breakthrough laurels either. Surveys have found, for example, that black and female actors on average receive fewer job offers after winning an Oscar than white men do.
And a recent analysis by The Economist points out that as much as blacks may be underrepresented in Oscar nominations, Hispanic, Asian and other nonwhites fare even worse, even though Hispanics are the most frequent moviegoers.
“We’re not lowering any standards,” states the academy on the frequently-asked-questions page on its website. “We’re widening our net.” That’s the spirit. It’s not only the right thing to do in our rapidly diversifying society. It’s also a smart business move.
Clarence Page, a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board, blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage.