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In My Words: OscarsSoWhat?

Associate Professor Naeemah Clark recently published a column in regional newspapers about the lack of diversity among 2016 Academy Award nominees, and how recent changes in the Academy will produce a broader selection of nominees in future years.

The following column appeared recently in the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record, the Fayetteville Observer, the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News and the Winston-Salem Journal via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not Elon University.

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Associate Professor Naeemah Clark
OscarsSoWhat?
By Naeemah Clark - nclark3@elon.edu

Four score and eight years ago, a group of filmmakers organized the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to support and promote the good works of the motion picture industry.

Although the Academy maintains a public museum, a film library, and a scholarship program for young moviemakers, it’s best known for the Academy Awards where grand statues known as Oscars are given to the best filmmakers of the year.

This ceremony has become one of the biggest events of the television season with an average of 40 million people watching the telecast each of the last 10 years.

To capitalize on the audience’s enthusiasm for the awards, ABC, the show’s longtime broadcast home, also airs the early morning, star-studded reading of the nominees live on “Good Morning, America” a month before the primetime ceremony.

When the Oscar nominations were announced in early January 2015, the 20 best actors and actresses in lead and supporting categories were all white.

And then. . . .

When the Oscar nominations were announced in early January 2016, the 20 best actors and actresses in lead and supporting categories were all white.

Also glaring in this year’s nominations was that when films about people of color were recognized, whites that worked on these films received the nominations. “Straight out of Compton”’s screenwriters Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman and “Creed”’s supporting actor Sylvester Stallone received nominations.

Some of the Hollywood elite – including Berloff and Herman – expressed consternation at the lack of diversity in the nominations.

African-American filmmakers including Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett and Will Smith called for a boycott of the awards ceremony saying that the Academy should revisit its voting rules to create a more diverse celebration. 

Moviegoers of all races shared humorous/not so humorous messages with the Twitter hashtag “OscarsSoWhite”.

Some of the comments identified a bigger issue within the industry. Films with diverse actors, producers, directors and storylines cannot win awards if they aren’t made. Undoubtedly, the industry has to make changes in how it makes movies. However, there was a simultaneous outcry heard. The lack of diversity in the nominations was because of flaws in the Academy’s nominating process.

To understand why the process is flawed, it has to be acknowledged that people best understand a story or performance that is familiar. For example, as a university professor, I know what the reality of my work is. I can look at my colleague’s work, interaction with students, and creative lessons and see where she excels.

Conversely, I can see that the house an architect has built is beautiful and it doesn’t fall down when the wind blows, but I don’t know the reality of the architect’s work. I can enjoy and appreciate her work but can’t honor it in a meaningful way.

The lack of voting members of color in the Academy has historically meant that majority voters pass judgment on the way minorities tell their own stories.

It’s not that white voters cannot see what is good; it is that white voters can best identify with stories they already understand.

This is why the Academy frequently recognizes black actors that play slaves, the downtrodden or thugs. These are tropes voters know because they have seen these before. Hence, “Gosh, that’s a powerful story of a slave. And slavery was hard. Give that actor an award!”

This is also why the Black Entertainment Television Awards and the NAACP Image Awards exist. The voting members understand, support and value the work of people of color. And their work will be celebrated regardless of the overall societal standards that tend to privilege white art and artists.

In answer to the pressure from the industry, on Jan. 18, 2016, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs – the first African-American in that role – announced changes to the voting process designed to make the voting membership more inclusive when it comes to gender and race.

In part, members of the Academy will have to be employed in the film industry at least once every 10 years in a 30-year period to vote for nominees and winners. This policy is designed to weed out those that have long ruled the Oscar roost—old, white and male.

For some, these voting changes smack of ageism as a remedy for racism. Still, to my mind, the changes create space for voters that are willing to recognize filmmakers who want to tell stories in ways that could be disruptive in an industry that relies on sequels and derivative romantic comedies.

Other types of stories matter because Hollywood is a land where dreams come true. No, not dreams of stardom, but dreams where anything is possible. The movies tell us it’s OK to dream to be a brilliant potato-growing astronaut or a post-apocalyptic road warrior.

The price of admission not only gives us a comfy velvety seat, but it is also a ticket to see ourselves in ways we don’t dare. In movies, we can see in Technicolor and hear in Dolby Sound the past, present and future of humanity.

The changes in the Academy’s voting procedures mean that these stories have a greater chance to be lauded on a national stage and win a man the color of gold.

Naeemah Clark (on Twitter: @NaeemahC) is an associate professor of communications at Elon University.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
2/29/2016 4:15 AM