I’m black, and I’m not boycotting the Oscars this Sunday. Wait, wait-before you start to dial the NAACP, let me explain.
I’m not denying that there’s a huge diversity problem in the entertainment industry. Please read my recent post about the claustrophobic world of Girls if you need evidence of that. Time and time again, Hollywood has proven that black people’s stories are only award-worthy if the characters they play are downtrodden, slaves, or victims of systemic racism. And though the Academy seems to really love Denzel Washington and Will Smith, a fondness for two individuals in an industry where there are thousands upon thousands of black actors simply isn’t enough.
While I couldn’t be happier that the #OscarsSoWhite controversy brought the diversity issue into the national discussion, this hashtag activism seems to miss the point entirely by focusing only on the effect and not the cause.
The problem with the Oscars isn’t that there aren’t enough black actors nominated. The issue is the lack of work-the lack of challenging roles, the lack of screenplays that call for diverse casts, the lack of people of color behind the scenes. The lack of black people nominated doesn’t really mean anything when it comes to the broadcast. To simply avoid watching the dry 3-hour telecast is a superficial attempt to make a difference.
Charlotte Rampling was maligned for saying that “maybe black actors did not deserve to make the final list”. But you know what? She was right. Digging into her statement, it doesn’t represent open racism to me. She isn’t saying that black actors don’t deserve to be nominated or that black actors as a whole aren’t as talented as their white counterparts. She’s simply saying that the black actors who participated in the Hollywood game this year didn’t deliver Oscar-worthy work.
And perhaps this lack of Oscar-worthy work is due to the lack of available Oscar-worthy opportunities.
While promoting his not so Oscar-worthy parody film 50 Shades Of Black, Marlon Wayans very candidly expressed to Huffington Post that the film studios won’t invest in black films. The studios won’t provide the necessary funds to create a groundbreaking film with a diverse cast. So black filmmakers are often forced to decide between making a run of the mill, commercially viable film or reach for greatness on a shoestring budget. It seems that many of the filmmakers are choosing the former option.
I’d love to live in a world where films could just be cast with the right actors and no particular racial group felt the need to create their own media. But because of the reality of the industry, I completely understand why it’s necessary and why black audiences rally around subpar films. Because it’s all we have.
As a moviegoer, I choose to support great films regardless of ethnic diversity. A great movie is a great movie as long as everyone involved does their best work. But of course I’d like to see a critically lauded, commercially successful film that stars people who look like me. Who doesn’t want to see themselves reflected back from the movie screen? Who doesn’t want to champion a more diverse array of films?
In order to get there, where everyone has an equal chance to participate in fantastic work, we have to focus our efforts on the right part of the battle. Choosing to sit on the sidelines for Hollywood’s biggest night isn’t achieving any sort of victory. Yes, the Academy is revising its membership guidelines to have a more diverse voting body that more accurately reflects the industry’s creators. But we’ll reap the benefits of this in 5, maybe 10 years. We should be focused on actions we can achieve now. If all of the hashtag activists really want to lead and drive change, then really get involved. Present your screenplay. Crowd fund a diverse movie. Support local filmmakers. Get involved with film festivals so you can have a say from the beginning.
Change is absolutely necessary. But making a seemingly “big” action on the surface does nothing to truly advance people of color in entertainment and get closer to a real solution. Whether you watch or not on Sunday, the opportunities still aren’t out there. What small moves will you take to push things forward?