By Eric Peterson | February 4, 2020

One year ago, when the Oscars awarded three of its four acting honors to people of color, people wondered if perhaps the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had finally turned a corner. Maybe, just maybe … its historic efforts to diversify its membership in 2016 had paid off.

But when this year’s nominees were announced, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, which first appeared in 2015 to highlight the diversity issues within the Academy, made an immediate comeback.

In the acting categories, eighteen of the twenty nominees are white (the exceptions are Antonio Banderas and Cynthia Erivo). In the past, such an imbalance was usually blamed on the dearth of Oscar-worthy performances by people of color, the root cause being Hollywood’s general lack of interest in telling their stories. And while it remains true that white actors still get 80% of leading roles in feature films, there were many standout performances by people of color this year, including Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers), Eddie Murphy (Dolemite is My Name), Lupita Nyong’o (Us), Jamie Foxx (Just Mercy), Awkwafina, and Zhou Shuzhen (The Farewell).

This isn’t really about the actors; it’s about the audiences. Click To Tweet

My point in bringing this up is not to lament the fact that J.Lo was probably disappointed on the morning of January 13 to discover that her much-hyped performance was not included in the roster. Nor is it to discredit the incredible work of actors like Laura Dern, Adam Driver, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Saoirse Ronan, or Renée Zellweger, all of whom delivered exceptional performances this year.

This isn’t really about the actors; it’s about the audiences.

The Oscars have long been the measure – an imperfect one to be sure, but by far the most influential – of what films are deemed important, which movies rise above the pure commerce that defines the film industry and rises to the level of art. Films that are nominated for Oscars become avatars for excellence, and signal to audiences which stories deserve our attention.

 

Therefore, when nearly every face that appears in said films is a white one, their audience is given an unmistakable message: the joys, sorrows, struggles, tragedies, and victories of white people simply outrank the same human experiences when they’re experienced by those who aren’t white.

What complicates the issue is one of the key facets of privilege, which is blindness to one’s own privilege. White audiences (and studio executives) tend to view films about white people as universal, somehow. Joker becomes a universal story of how isolation can lead to madness. Marriage Story becomes a universal tale of how we hurt the ones we love the most. Little Women has a decidedly feminist slant, but even firmly ensconced in that genre, becomes a universal story of how girls grow and mature.

What people of color know is that these stories are in no way universal. They’re very white. They play out differently for white people than they would for people of color, particularly in the Civil War setting of Little Women. But white people have never been particularly adept at seeing whiteness as a thing, even when they’re very quick to recognize the racial dynamics present in films like Harriet, Parasite, or Hidden Figures.

After all, we could easily decide to see The Farewell as a universal story about the death of our elders. But we don’t. It’s a particularly Chinese tale, with special emphasis placed on ways that Eastern cultures treat death. We could easily decide to see Harriet as a universal story about a yearning for freedom and the unflinching courage it takes to buck the system. But we don’t. It’s a particularly African-American tale, steeped in the institution of slavery. To most white audiences, it’s a film that might engender empathy for those who might be different, but it’s not a film about them. It’s a film about someone else.

Of course, the issue of representation is not limited to race. One of the most discussed snubs of the 2020 Oscar race is Greta Gerwig’s omission from the Best Director category. Her film, Little Women, is one of the best-reviewed films of the year, and it’s hard to imagine that she would have been omitted if she were a man, her film had a different title, and was centered around the coming-of-age of four brothers rather than four sisters. Additionally, while many view Hollywood as overwhelmingly liberal, it’s telling that none of the 20 acting nominees this year identify as LGBTQ (although two – Banderas and Margot Robbie – were nominated for playing queer characters); moreover, early Oscar favorite Rocketman, a biopic about legendary gay singer/songwriter Elton John, received only one nomination for Best Original Song, despite being considered competitive in both the Best Picture and Best Actor categories.

Last year, the #Oscars seemed to take a significant step forward. This year, we’re reminded just how easy it is to take a step back. Click To Tweet

There isn’t an easy fix to these issues, but there are several lessons we can learn from the state of the 2020 Oscar race.

  • First, the way that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences have (perhaps unwittingly) equated excellence with whiteness has an impact on audiences. While a slate of Oscar nominees cannot be held solely responsible for implicit racial biases that persist in all corners of our society, the overwhelming whiteness of the slate sends a clear message: This is what excellence looks like.
  • Second, even a diverse group of people are capable of recognizing excellence more quickly when it’s wrapped in whiteness, applauding leadership when the leader is male, or appreciating queer issues without extending that appreciation to openly queer people.
  • Third, change takes time. In 2016, the Academy made sweeping changes in its policies regarding membership in a transparent attempt to create a much more diverse population in its ranks. In 2019, it seemed these efforts had paid off – one year later, things look much the same as they did before. This isn’t to say that the Academy’s efforts failed, only that the allure of the status quo is incredibly strong.

Last year, the Oscars seemed to take a significant step forward. This year, we’re reminded just how easy it is to take a step back. Let’s hope that the film industry is as disappointed as many fans are in the way that the Oscars race played out – and that they endeavor to make truly universal stories in the future, by including the stories that aren’t often told.

Eric C. Peterson, MSOD is a Senior Consultant with Cook Ross Inc. He is a recognized facilitator and educator in the diversity and inclusion space with over 18 years of experience in Unconscious Bias, diversity and inclusion, learning strategies, and organization development.