Hollywood claims to have listened. So will this be the last’ white’ Oscars?

The Academy Awards in Los Angeles have been mired in accusations of racism. The occasion is a reflection of a nation and as America changes, so might they

Few comedians and none as virtuoso at uncovering prejudices have been given a stage as politically primed as the one Chris Rock will command as host of Sundays Academy Awards.

Hollywood, a company township that loves the audio of political correctness if not the reality of equality, has for six weeks been turned upside down by accusations of institutional racism after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to nominate a single minority performer for the second year in a row.

Even if this is as some have argued road traffic accidents of bad timing, the tradition-bound organization has sleep-walked into the diversity issue in the midst of a neurotic, election-year referendum on the nations first black president.

The Academy has reacted. Since the #OscarsSoWhite disputeover diversity and racial representation broke out in January, it has taken steps to even out representation at the body. New regulations, announced at the end of January, include a commitment to double the number of women and ethnic minority members of the Academy by 2020.

But will this be enough to reform the Oscars and could tonights ceremony be the last white version of the famous awards ceremony? The problems may be more deep-rooted than that, in an entire industry where decision-makers are overwhelmingly male and white.

Rock, who first hosted the Oscars a decade ago and who called Hollywood a white industryin a 2014 essay, has been practising his lines in a local slapstick club. Pay inequality, the glut of superhero movies, the Kardashians the business is hardly short on comedic material. But nothing goes close to race and no one is talking about anything else.

Entertainment trade magazine Variety reported that Rocks routine included a gag about the celebrity couple boycotting the awardings Will Smith, denied a nomination for Concussion , and spouse Jada Pinkett Smith, who have quoted systemic racism in the industry as their reason for their non-attendance. Sadly, that gag may never be heard; its punchline is considered too lewd to get past the Oscar censors.

What could be most telling, says Dr Darnell Hunt, prof of sociology and director of the Ralph J Bunche Center for African American Survey, who co-authored UCLAs recently released 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report, is what happens after Rock skewers Hollywood on race and gender discrimination and the applause dies down.

Idris Elba in Beasts Of No Nation. Photo: AP

Will minority spectators 38% of the population but responsible for 46% of movie tickets sold in the US in 2014 tune out when it is necessary to awardings and speeches by a parade of white nominees? Will they tune in to see Rock, then tune out? Its a distinct prospect, says Hunt.

If that happens it will serve to underscore his findings that minority audiences are the most important segment of the amusement market and their under-representation is a multi-dimensional problem that will require interventions on every stage of the business.

Minorities are constructing little or no advance yet Latinos go to more movies than any other group, and African Americans watch more Tv. Yet most movies and Tv presents are less than 10% diverse, says Hunt.

Oscar winner Morgan Freeman has said that while he can understand why there has been such a furore over the awardings, to him it is just noise. If were going to talk about diversity in the film industry, we dont need to start with the Academy Awards, he told Variety last week.

We need to start somewhere route back with the producers, the directors, the casting agents, the writers. It should be an open field. I think in todays world, if you look out there, thats what would reflect todays America.

The UCLA report found that films do better at the box office if two or three of the top eight billed performers are non-white yet minorities are under-represented by a factor of virtually three to one among lead roles.

That statistic will increase, says Hunt, as racial minorities reach majority status. These arent momentary flaws, he says. Its the handwriting on the wall.

As it stands, he says, its a bunch of white humen constructing the thing they know how to make-up, thats consistent with their base, but does not align with where the market is now and certainly not where the market is going.

African-American audiences can be more difficult to way. Straight Outta Compton , the biopic of the gangsta rap group NWA, was predicted to take $40 m over its opening weekend; it took $60 m and has now grossed $300 m. That kind of misreading uncovered a fundamental failure to understand the market and served as a wake-up call to studio executives.

Even if the diversity issue is fundamentally a moral one, says Hunt, the industry prefers to focus on the economic argument because that, in the end, is the one people will look to.

That same argument is true for the Academy Awards. While the viewing public may see it as an amusement demonstrate, it is in fact Hollywoods annual industry convention, an event surrounded by dozens of lunches and parties the business of who you know , not what you know.

The Oscars are about making money, says Allison Hope Weiner, host of Media Mayhem, the weekly media demonstrate for TheLip.TV. Its an advertising demonstrate. If youre nominated, you make money. Everyone at the top is trying to hold on to the power and the money. Nobody at the top is angling for narratives about minorities or women. Its a question of power. You genuinely have to look at who is green-lighting this stuff.

While that may not be racist per se, the importance of the event is underscored by the fact that only two people Mr and Mrs Smith are biding home. Actor Jamie Foxx joked about the couples decision last week at the American Black Film Festival awardingswhen he called out #WhatsTheBigDeal? and #ActBetter with the audience reportedly roaring with laughter.

Its not a risk for them[ the Smiths] anyway, says Weiner. Perhaps theyll end up going to a party. If the studios want either for a role, theyll come to their house.

Will Smith in Concussion. Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/ Courtesy of Columbia Picture.

The persisting attitude to discrimination in Hollywood was illustrated by remarks attained recently by Steven Spielberg, an elder statesman of the film industry and one of its moral compasses. He used to say while he was surprised the Academy did not nominate Straight Outta Compton for best picture or Idris Elba for best supporting actor in Brutes of No Nation , he dismissed the idea that racism was behind the omissions. He pointed to 2013, when Lupita Nyongo was recognised for 12 Years a Slave and the same cinema won Best Picture.

I dont believe that there is inherent or dormant racism because of the amount of white Academy members, he said.

But how to explain the inequalities and how to correct them? Several studios and talent unions sponsor mentoring programmes designed to minority writers and directors. People can only get nominated if they get the run but if they dont get the run, theres no chance, says Weiner. You have to look at the product, and you have to look at the power structure of Hollywood.

There are other forces at work, however. Films are increasingly cast according to online media profiles of the actors. An performer with a significant Twitter or Instagram following, particularly among well-off segments of the audience, has a clear advantage. Your Instagram following has to be wealthy , not only a bunch of kids that dont buy anything, Weiner points out.

The same issue came up when Elba was said to be in the running to replace Daniel Craig as James Bond. Follow that logic and it is not hard to see why the dispute and the #OscarsSoWhite tag has stuck to the business. The awardings show is a lens on the industry: and that, in large routes or small, is a reflection on America.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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