#OscarsSoWhite: Is Hollywood part of a much bigger problem? | Film | DW | 23.02.2016
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#OscarsSoWhite: Is Hollywood part of a much bigger problem?

After an onslaught of criticism from Hollywood stars and film fans over lack of diversity at the Oscars, the Academy promised to reform itself. But critics say the changes don't go far enough in addressing racism.

"Enough is enough," said Frederic Kendrick, communications professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. "We've had it up to here."

That once again black actors are missing from the nomination rosters at the 88th annual Academy Awards is, for Kendrick, just the tip of the iceberg.

"The US has a lot of problems when it comes to race and culture."

That's a sentiment many have shared over the last six weeks, ever since the nominations were announced. The Oscars, scheduled to be awarded on February 28, unleashed fury towards Hollywood's Academy - a group of 6,261 prominent members of the film industry - and comprised, for the most part, of older white men.


The hashtag #Oscarssowhite started by editor and public speaker April Reign first began appearing just hours after the nominations were announced in mid-January. A glance at social media platforms shows that the outrage hasn't cooled since then.

Spike Lee, Copyright: Getty Images/P. Le Segretain

Director Spike Lee was an early critic of the Oscars

"If a white man were to play Michael Jackson, he'd be guaranteed an Oscar," according to numerous sarcastic tweets in response to Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson in "Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon." The short British comedy sees the King of Pop joining Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando on a road trip together in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York.

The protest, which counts director Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett Smith as two of the most vocal early adopters, has also been taken up by the "New York Times," which claims that Hollywood has a "race problem."

In a statement, President Barack Obama went one step further, asking whether the discrimination against black actors is part of a larger problem. "Are we doing everything to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance?" he asked rhetorically.

The good old (white) boys club

For many blacks and other minorities in the US, the answer to that question is no. Despite the election of a black president, not much has changed for the better. For some, Hollywood plays a role in this discriminatory system.

Author Earl Ofari Hutchinson told DW that he sees Hollywood as a "skewed and deeply-rooted, party of white boys," whose only role in life is to defend privilege.

"Hollywood has repeatedly seen to it that white talent not be excluded," says Hutchinson, whose widely-acclaimed books include, "A Colored Man's Journey Through 20th-Century Segregated America."

Just how great a disparity between roles for white and black actors exists is something that media students at Howard University wanted to know. That's the impetus behind "Truth Be Told," a fact-checking project aimed at uncovering whether those criticisms against Hollywood and the Academy are fair.

At first glance, the numbers don't look good: In the 87-year history of the Oscars, just 32 of the winners were black.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Copyright: picture-alliance/AP Photo/N. Ut

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

A discriminatory dynamic

With two Oscars, Denzel Washington is the exception to the rule. "Blacks weren't envisaged when Hollywood was founded," said Kendrick, the professor who started the project. He refers specifically to the silent film "Birth of a Nation," which was produced in 1915 by one of Hollywood's founding fathers. In it, blacks are portrayed in a negative light and practices of the white-supremacy group Ku Klux Klan are glorified.

Many Americans believe their country has already arrived in a "post-race era," but they are getting ahead of themselves, says Kendrick. The "Hollywood dynamic" is evidence of the opposite.

In the eyes of the critics, last year should have been a banner year for blacks with several very good films produced featuring black actors in the lead. As examples, they cite the roles played by Will Smith in "Focus" and Michael B. Jordan in "Creed." Despite being considered as top-notch quality and successes at the box office, neither of the films gained nominations.

Reforms in the wings

In the meantime, the uproar has led the Academy to promise that the number of minority members in its midst be incrementally increased in order to promote diversity.

It's too little, too late, however, says Earl Ofari Hutchinson. "That's not a dramatic shift," added the author, whose role as president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtables has him lobbying for filmmakers.

In his statements, one hears a bit of a warning: If the Academy stays so stubborn, the changing tide will roll over their heads. Their glitzy exterior and influence could soon be history.

Robert Redford, who was awarded an Oscar for his life's work, has not paid the critics much mind. He's interested, he says, "only in the work" and the on-screen results.

"The elite good old boys, who want to secure their position of power," criticizes Hutchinson.

An online protest for diversity

And so the discussion about Hollywood's race problem carries on. Is it, as Frederic Kendrick of Howard University has said, just one element in a larger debate?

Either way, protestors have already declared a massive anti-Oscar campaign on social media for Sunday night. It may just be that these online activists steal the spotlight from the stars on the red carpet.

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