What is #OscarsSoWhite and why does it matter?

As we approach the 88th Annual Academy Awards – screening live in Australia on Monday February 29th from Noon on Channel Nine – it feels pertinent to reflect on one of the most justifiably endearing topics of this year’s awards: race.

#OscarsSoWhite is a hashtag (engineered by April Reign, Managing Editor of BroadwayBlack.com) that circulated the social sphere following the announcement of the 2016 nominees, which, for the second year in a row, featured an exclusively white catalogue of nominated actors. The criticism is natural and warranted, though the most endearing question isn’t why actors of colour weren’t included on the list – not all Oscar voters are responsible for what ends up on the screen after all – it’s why the Oscar worthy roles aren’t there in the first place. Why are casting directors going for white actors in roles that would be just as agreeable for someone of colour?

When you dig deep into the history of Hollywood, however, it becomes clear this is a systemic issue. In a segment on the most recent episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, entitled “Hollywood Whitewashing: How Is This Still a Thing?”, one thing was argued clearly: this is nothing new.

Since the beginning of cinema, Hollywood hasn’t just precluded actors of colour from these accolades – with few exceptions – but replaced opportunities for such roles with white actors. Blackface – now universally considered a racist act – was once common place amongst American comedies. Acclaimed actors like Marlon Brando and John Wayne would play Asian roles. Tom Cruise played a Samurai. And even in recent films like Exodus: Gods and Kings, the lead roles – characters of Egyptian descent – were played by an Australian and Englishman. And what was Director Ridley Scott’s reasoning? That he couldn’t sell it to producers unless he had white actors:

“And say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed” – Ridley Scott

Really Sir Scott? You’re telling us that you, one of the most successful directors of all time, a man who convinced producers that a one man show on Mars would work, and that Russell Crowe could be a Gladiator, couldn’t sell an actor of colour in a role created for someone of colour? Well if that’s the way you think, no wonder Hollywood is the way it is. He could be the solution if he wanted to.

It was also a topic the brilliant Netflix series Master of None covered, with the lead characters – an American of Indian descent and an Asian American – looking back at the history of American television, wondering where all the non-stereotyped ethnic characters were.

And this brings us to the surprising saving grace in the discussion of race: Television. In amongst all this Oscars controversy, you may wonder why award shows like the Golden Globes weren’t enjoying the same scrutiny. That’s because while their film nominations were indeed also white centric, their television nominations were the most diverse they’ve ever been. In spite of a sharp decline in people watching television in a traditional manner, for the first time in the medium’s history, thanks much in part to the decisions of streaming services like Netflix, television has never been more colourful, never been of higher quality and never been more interesting.

And a quick look at the actors of colour in the lead roles – Don Cheadle (House of Lies), Terrance Howard (Empire), Kerry Washington (Scandal), Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black), Viola Davis (How to Get Away With Murder), Taraji P. Henson (Empire). Gabourey Sidibe (American Horror Story, Empire) – also reveals something interesting. With a small pool of recognisable actors of colour to choose from, television seems to be taking them all. And giving them the lead roles – some of the most phenomenal roles on television right now. Viola Davis said it best in her Emmy’s speech, the first African American woman to win Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2015:

“The only thing that separates women of colour, from anyone else, is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles which are simply not there.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=685jYZGcFh8

It’s a sentiment that holds true for the Oscars right now.

Interestingly, leading the charge on the subsequent #OscarsSoWhite boycott, is one actress who has moved to Television herself, Jada Pinkett Smith, alongside her husband, who may or may not be slighted that Concussion (in cinemas now) didn’t get the love he felt it deserved. Whether or not it did (it didn’t by all accounts), alongside any criticism we should be reminded of the medium that has finally seen change.

As referenced in Master of None, we still may see Asthon Kutcher playing an Indian stereotype in an ad campaign, but the future is nonetheless a bright one for television. The steaming age has made diverse topics a must have commodity. Subscription streaming services, not bound by ad dollars, have said yes to ideas that free-to-air and basic cable would once have never dreamed of. Now, they’re all itching for the next big show that pushes boundaries it should have challenged decades ago, when shows like The Wire were one in a million.

Though film has a long way to go to change the internal systemic issues in place, and streaming is certainly not going to change things like it has for Television, discussions like #OscarsSoWhite are important because it tells Hollywood that Ridley Scott is wrong. The ways of old Hollywood are over. We will accept a Black Stormtrooper. Aziz Anzari is a funny, reasonably short Indian who we will watch do anything. We do want diverse faces on our screens. This is 2016 after all… how is this still a thing indeed.

The Oscars screens from 12 noon this Monday live on Channel Nine in HD, repeating again later that night (around 9.45pm). Chris Rock is hosting, who I’m sure will have a thing or two to say about the whole controversy.

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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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