PHOTOGRAPH BY TOBY CANHAM / GETTY

How the 2016 Oscars Overcame

From #OscarsSoWhite to Recognizing Media Activism

Written by: SUNY Geneseo students from Dr. Gillian Paku’s Spring 2016 INTD 105 class

Edited by: Dr. Gillian Paku and Sean Fischer

T The Oscars are a television and cultural phenomenon we usually associate not just with the suspense of seeing which of our favorite actors will win one of the most coveted awards in cinema, but also with red-carpet fashion and celebrity stargazing. In 2016, however, serious controversy threatened to render the Oscars ceremony trivial in its celebration of a privileged few. The main issue was racism: social media created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite as soon as the nominees in all the major categories of acting, directing, and film were revealed to be white for the second year in a row. Despite counterarguments that individual talent is colorblind, criticism of systemic racism in the movie industry escalated rapidly to the point where prominent guild members announced their intention to boycott the Oscar ceremony in protest at the inequalities. The embarrassment only deepened as journalists revealed other forms of Hollywood discrimination regarding sex and gender. But the Oscars staged an amazing comeback: taking the media’s harsh spotlight on the way the Oscars have failed to reflect a diverse society, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences used that publicity to make visible their engagement with other social injustices. The Oscars ceremony on February 28 drew on its host, the stars, the night’s entertainers, and the winners to draw attention to a raft of social and political ills, offering uplifting messages of hope and change. After weeks of fierce criticism that prompted immediate changes to the structure of the voting organization, the Academy responded on the big night in the most appropriate way, by awarding the Academy’s grand prize, the Oscar for Best Picture, to a movie about how media scrutiny can be a force for social good.

The racial diversity problems with this year’s Oscars began as soon as the final nominees were announced in January. The New York Times’ “Oscars So White? Or Oscars So Dumb? Discuss” voices the frustration of African Americans and other minorities regarding the veritable “white out” of nominees. Even the recognition for Creed and Straight Outta Compton went not to the roles played by African American actors, but to the white writers and Sylvester Stallone.

Michael B. Jordan failed to earn an Oscar nomination, while Sylvester Stallone did for the movie Creed / Warner Bros. Pictures

Putting this year’s problems into a wider perspective, Richard Brody, in “The Oscar Whiteness Machine,” stresses the Oscars’ systematic “whiting-out of movies about black experience,” and points out in “The Front Row: ‘To Sleep with Anger’” that Danny Glover, a black independent filmmaker and director, has never been nominated for an Oscar despite being “one of the leading directors of the last forty years.” According to Brody, independent filmmaking is difficult enough, but “The problem is compounded because Burnett is a black filmmaker.” In “What Does the Academy Value in a Black Performance?” Brandon K. Thorp claims that the number of black actors ever nominated for an Oscars is thirty, and only ten of those have been black women. All ten have portrayed low-income characters, and seven of the men have played absent husbands, fathers or boyfriends. Furthermore, “Almost all the nominations for Best Actor that black actors have received have been for performances in movies made by white directors. (An exception: Denzel Washington won for Training Day, directed by Antoine Fuqua).” The dissatisfaction with the unfair representation and lack of credit given to minorities in today’s film industry led to the withdrawal of high-profile attendees at the ceremony, including Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee.

Jada Pinkett Smith announced she would not attend the 2016 Oscars through a video on her Facebook page

The counterargument contends that the nominations were not racially charged, but simply based on individual talent. One of the 6000 members who votes for the Oscars, identified as “Brynao in California,” states how crazy it would be if the voters focused only on the race of the person instead of the performance itself, the best and most interesting actors, writers, producers and directors. From this perspective, the lack of minorities in this year’s nominations did not reflect the makeup and bias of the academy, but instead represented how “competitive” this year was. Some of these people even contended that the Oscars might become racist against whites by giving #OscarsSoWhite credit, trending the opposing Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoRight. Among the thousand #OscarsSoWhite supporters surveyed by [McDermott], most agreed that an Oscar was based on talent and talent alone and that race does not make a person any more or less talented, although “Laura174” from Toronto argued wryly that “The Academy obviously thought that the awards given to 12 Years a Slave and Lupita Nyong’o should tide them over for a few years.”

The celebration at the 2014 Oscars after 12 Years a Slave won / Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Steve McQueen, the first black director to direct a Best Picture with 12 Years a Slave, seems to agree that the Academy voting members are not biased, but directs the charge of racism elsewhere, stating that the problem is less about the composition of the Academy and more about the decisions being made in Hollywood that block minorities from receiving the opportunity to even be considered for Oscar nominations. Chris Bodenner [“The Missing Piece of th**?”] claims similarly that “There needn’t be a quota — just a simple acknowledgment that minorities can also be cast in movies about weirdos in the L.A. suburbs, or darkly comic murder mysteries in Minnesota. It is this severe lack of imagination on the part of Hollywood gatekeepers that is fueling to this growing backlash from minorities.” Where some argue that issuing a quota would give many aspiring actors from across the globe “equal representation,” Bodenner maintains that the racial problem should not be addressed through actor quotas, but rather through a more diverse crowd behind the scenes: “Diversity among casting directors, screenwriters, and directors would translate to a greater proportion of interesting stories about characters that everyone would want to see because they would not be ‘Black stories,’ ‘Hispanic stories,’ or ‘Asian stories.’ They would be stories that happen to include characters whose backgrounds are diverse and no one would need to fill a quota because it would be intrinsic to the scriptwriting and casting process.”

Ava DuVernay on set / Atsushi Nishijima / Paramount

Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, takes issue even with the clumsy vocabulary of diversity. In Spencer Kornhaber’s “A Person Cannot Be ‘Diverse” in The Atlantic, DuVernay states, “I hate that word so, so much.” She views “diverse” as lacking any emotional sentiment and instead being a “medicinal word” for an emotional issue. Kornhaber argues adamantly that over time “diversity” has simply become a word to describe not only a person who is “not a white guy,” but specifically African-Americans, whereas many other factors can categorize people into groups of “underrepresented populations” such as “gender and race and sexuality and socioeconomic status and any number of additional distinctions.” The article demands, “Is a group made up 100 percent of black women automatically a ‘diverse group?’” A truly diverse group would in fact comprise of some “non-straight-white-males” as well as a balance of people who differ from each other not only in skin color, but also in these other ways. Kornhaber ends with a challenge: instead of using the catch-all term “diverse,” avoid confusion and call the groups what they are, or, better yet, avoid labeling at all. He argues that “seeing all non-straight-white-males as one undifferentiated mass is not, traditionally, a tendency of those who want an inclusive society where historic injustices have been remedied. It is a tendency of those who don’t.”

Spike Lee announces he would boycott the 2016 Oscars Ceremony / Reuters

Valid as this opinion surely is, the accusations of racism clearly touched a raw nerve in the Academy. Rather than rejecting the charges, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs acknowledged, “This year, we all know there’s an elephant in the room.” Perhaps stung particularly by Spike Lee’s boycott, Isaacs promptly addressed ways that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would change in order to better acknowledge the talents of African Americans and other minorities. One of the main goals for upcoming years is to diversify and add youth to the academy, while not offending or uselessly letting go of some of the older academy members. Isaacs’ plan involves a reevaluation of members every ten years, and asking some of the current outdated members to step away from their voting responsibilities. In order to keep the peace, Isaacs claims that she will grant some of these members the same responsibilities that they had before, without the ability to vote. Isaacs hopes that by the year 2020, the academy’s some 6200 members will have a completely different makeup in order to better reflect the minorities and African American actors represented in today’s film industry. Says Isaacs, “I have asked the elephant to leave.”

Isaacs may have a plan for the elephant, but a whole menagerie of animals was congregating behind the most visible problem of racial diversity. The controversial racial proportions blurred into the nationality of the acting nominees. For only the second time in fifty years, noted Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, “fully half of the acting nominees [including Christian Bale, Kate Winslet, and Cate Blanchett] come from Commonwealth countries.” In their article, “Oscar’s Heart May Be in Hollywood, but His Accent is British,” the authors suggest that this “new invasion” constitutes a threat to the American hosts because the Commonwealth success stems from more rigorous training. They quote the president of the Casting Society of America as saying, “The British […] tend to cut their teeth on the stage, which ‘provides tremendous technical skill.’ American actors often come up through vanilla television shows.” Furthermore, as these Commonwealth actors do well at the Oscars, their proportional representation in the vote-wielding Academy is also flourishing, to the extent that “the Academy Awards […] may become a tough climb for Americans, and, as an adjunct, for African-American-themed films like Straight Outta Compton.” This “danger” seems manufactured, especially since many of the Commonwealth actors portray Americans in their movies, or live and work regularly in the States, but it seems significant that the authors often conflate “American” with “African-American” to suggest that the stakes behind this question of nationality are as much racial as they are a question of rigor and technical craft.

Mark Rylance, one of the actors from the Commonwealth nominated this year, won Best Supporting Actor for Bridge of Spies

Gender inequality is the focus of Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply in “Holding Out Hope for Room to Win the Oscar for Best Picture.” Room was a long shot, with “the smallest film company in the best-picture race, A24, backing the nominee with the smallest box office tally, Room.Room adapts the Emma Donoghue novel about a captive mother and son, with a female as the lead character, but “a decade has passed since a film carried by a female lead has won the best picture.” Supporters of Room noted that of the eight nominees, Room was the only one with a female performer in the lead role. And, as it turned out, that pattern of passing over films with female leads continued in 2016: Room did not win Best Picture. However, its female lead, Brie Larson, won Best Actress, as many predicted she would. Christopher Orr had nothing but good words to say about Larson’s performance: “The heavy favorite here is Brie Larson, and rightly so … Room was a heartbreaking gem of a movie, and Larson was integral to almost every scene.”

Brie Larson wins Best Actress at the 2016 Oscars for Room

Gender was an issue not just in the content of the Oscar-nominated movies, but on the Oscars’ famous Red Carpet. According to Haley Mlotek at The New York Times, the high fashion scrutiny of movie stars at the Oscars dates back to the 1995 awards when Joan Rivers and her daughter Melissa asked the now canonical question, “Who are you wearing?”

Joan and Melissa Rivers interview attendees at the 1995 Oscar Awards

From there, the examination of movie star fashion has grown into a large production, warranting significant coverage before and after the awards have been given out. Yet, the coverage is not always neutral in its stance, according to Mlotek; critics often strive to reinforce a strict “code of conduct that pretends to be about fashion but is really about control.” The control that Mlotek describes is used to maintain the standards of beauty of old Hollywood, a fashion sense that developed around stars like Audrey Hepburn. As a result, Mlotek observes how individuality on the Red Carpet is attacked: “The red carpet ‘losers’ are, by and large, attendees who have no interest in placating a limited idea of what is pretty, and they dress, instead, for themselves.” This form of control, applied to what should be a fun and light-hearted portion of the ceremony, actually ends up making women — and it is almost always women — into economic tools for the companies attaching their names to the dresses the attendees wear. The women are in many ways removed from the process, creating, as Mlotek observes, anonymous celebrities marching to the tune of a distant master.

Compare the style of Audrey Hepburn at the BAFTAs in 1955 with Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars in 2013 / The Telegraph / At First Blush & Co

Every statistic that The Atlantic gives in its article “Some Inescapable Facts About Hollywood’s Diversity Crisis” ranks white, straight men above anyone else in every category compared. At its most sordid, this preference for white heteronormativity is commercial: mainstream sells. The Oscars are enveloped in such commercialism, even suing over fake “Oscar gift bags” that include “Vampire Breast Lift, a laser skin-tightening procedure, and a ten-day first-class trip to Israel.” The academy put a lawsuit in motion because the company that creates the gift bags “falsely created the impression of association […] sponsorship and/or endorsement” of the Oscars. Some might object that these are products that you would expect the rich and famous to receive, but these types of gifts put pressure on perfecting the individual’s appearance, and look to celebrities for inspiration. The “gifts” validate the notion that the Oscars are a spectacle for the whole world to watch and are understood to reflect what US values are — in more ways than one.

Mic takes us through the 2016 Oscars Gift Bag

Overall, then, the lead-up to the 2016 Oscars ceremony was embarrassing for the Academy, and appeared headed for disaster as the white and wealthy gathered on February 28 to pat each other on their well-dressed backs. But then, the Oscars regained some power through harnessing the spotlight that had revealed some of their problems and training it on their own potential as agents of social change. The ceremony itself was hosted by black comedian Chris Rock. This move was risky: in “Oscars Pin Hopes on Chris Rock for Ratings,” Chris Rock is described as “rank[ing] up there with the worst hosts ever” and seemed a weak attempt at addressing racial homogeneity. On the night, however, he consistently made fun of the Oscars’ whiteness and revealed the Academy’s newfound self-awareness.

Chris Rock’s opening monologue at the 2016 Oscars

Best Director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, spoke about how The Revenant “emphasized [the] racial hatred at the core of the story.” The night came to a close after three and a half hours with the live orchestra playing “Fight the Power,” a song from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, implying perhaps that Lee’s boycott of the ceremony was less useful than standing together with the Academy to advocate for social issues.

Vice-President Joe Biden took the stage to introduce an issue that is currently targeting many young adults throughout the country. Biden urged the audience to “change the culture” that allows sexual assault on college campuses. He closed his statements by endorsing “It’s On Us,” an organization that encourages the community to “take the pledge” and stand up for the victims of sexual abuse. Biden’s promotion acted as an introduction for pop star Lady Gaga who also leveraged her entertainment value to convey a powerful message: Lady Gaga performed “Till it Happens to You,” which features in The Hunting Ground, a documentary that follows college students who are victims of sexual assault. Gaga took the stage with a simple wardrobe and in simple makeup, unlike her usual costume, while being surrounded by many young assault survivors.

Vice President Biden introduces Lady Gaga and calls on the attendees of the 2016 Oscars to make meaningful change in campus culture towards sexual assault
Lady Gaga performs her song Till it Happen to You at the 2016 Oscars

In Variety’s “In Contention’s Final Oscar Winner Predictions,” Kristopher Tapley had predicted that some categories seemed a sure thing not just because the nominees were so good, but because they also had a story behind them. While Tapley predicted that “Till it Happens to You” would win “Best Original Song,” his prediction proved to be off, as “Writing’s On the Wall” from the James Bond movie Spectre won the award. However, that did not change the fact that Gaga used music and performance as a way to promote a problem that people know exists but would rather choose to ignore. At the end of her song, she stood with the brave students and received both a standing ovation and a cascade of tears from the audience.

Prior to the awards, actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s long-standing failure to win an Oscar had been a joke, spawning a series of “Oscar defeating DiCaprio” memes. At the 2016 ceremonies, DiCaprio finally won, this time the award for Best Actor for his role in The Revenant, and many probably expected his acceptance speech to be “fun and light hearted.” Instead, DiCaprio decided to utilize his brief time to discuss climate change and incite “a sense of urgency” on the matter, noting, “Making The Revenant was about man’s relationship to the natural world. A world that we collectively felt in 2015 as the hottest year in recorded history. Our production needed to move to the southern tip of this planet just to be able to find snow.”

Leonardo DiCaprio’s acceptance speech at the 2016 Oscars

As Blanche Johnson of Fox News noted, not all fans appreciated the somber tone , with some querying how accurate DiCaprio’s accounts were, but many others rushed to endorse the newest Oscar hashtag, #ClimateChange.

Thus, while the Oscars were, as usual, a night to celebrate the previous year’s successes in the film industry, this year the Academy also focused on harnessing the power of media as a form of activism. If the lead-up to the Oscars saw the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on the receiving end of a lot of negative publicity, the night itself was filled with actors, producers, directors, and entertainers who used their widely televised, streamed, and tweeted acceptance speeches to send positive messages about various social and political ills.

Not everything about the night was a political or social success, with some awardees’ speeches tastelessly cut off by music from the anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner, but David Sims appears to have been generally prescient in his article, “The 2016 SAG Awards: The Anti-Oscars,” when he claimed, “Awards ceremonies more and more serve as a dramatic stage for publicly asking these tough questions.” We sometimes forget that the Oscars are not only an awards ceremony but also a major means of advertisement, comparable to the Super Bowl: Watch this movie. Keep paying these actors. Love the industry promoted in this award-winning film. The Oscars are on display, and a lot of people are watching. This year, the Oscars found a brilliant means to join forces with the media that had revealed so many of their shortcomings in the lead-up to the ceremony by awarding the Oscar for Best Picture to … Spotlight.

A trailer for Spotlight

The announcement of Spotlight as Best Picture honored a film that made the connection between media and public awareness. Although newspapers and magazines including The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The New Yorker repeatedly asked us to focus on the problems with the 2016 Oscars, the reality is that journalism itself can be an unpopular form of media. Journalism has been, claims Ben Bradlee Jr., an assistant managing editor at The Boston Globe, “in a bad way in this country” as people have been focusing on other means of entertainment. But Spotlight offers a highly positive portrayal of journalism: the movie depicts The Boston Globe’s revelatory investigation of the Roman Catholic clergy’s sexual abuse. Prior to the Oscars, Bradlee hoped Spotlight’s nomination would shed positive light on the journalism industry, noting that Globe journalists “spent weeks interviewing victims, and [they] had heard more than a few stories [they] had tried to forget,” but which encouraged them ultimately to dig deeper into the scandal. Bradlee hoped that as a result of the film, not only “more survivors will come forward,” but also that “it will give journalism, especially print journalism … a shot in the arm.”

That boost appears to have been precisely the result: following the win, Timothy Pratt’s New York Times article “Spotlight Oscar Warms Boston Globe and Journalism” noted how subscription will inevitably also increase, with a flurry of tweets after the ceremony directing people to subscribe to The Globe. After the Oscars, the most viewed story on The Globe’s website was, you guessed it, “The Spotlight.” In other words, thanks to the Oscars, Spotlight put print journalism in the spotlight. The irony that social media, print journalism, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were at loggerheads leading up to the Oscars ceremony dissolved in the end during the big night’s mutual celebration of all forms of media as potential forces for good.

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