College Students Speak on #OscarsSoWhite

As it goes, the year past now becomes a shrinking speck in the rearview. The time is ripe for reflection and review. 2015 was undoubtedly a paramount year in the world of sociopolitical movements and, as such, full of successes, marked particularly for those in the realm of film and portrayals of minority groups in film and media. But with the recent controversy over the lack of diversity in Oscar nominations, those successes have been overshadowed by an attention called toward a perhaps needed New Year’s resolution for the film industry. What has now become widely referred to as #OscarsSoWhite is a movement concerned with the lack of diversity in Oscar nominations for the second year in a row. The movement, which started and quickly caught fire on Twitter, brought forth voices seldom heard both from viewing audiences and from the film industry alike, with an astonishingly polarizing effect.

Ultimately, the movement sprouted from a concern with the future of film. Its proponents are those who fall into the demographics most feature films are marketed for, yet see a disconnect between their own sociopolitical landscape and the variety of films represented in Oscar nominations. Out of dissatisfaction with the divide they perceive between the talent pool and those represented in nominations, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was born. With the awards now just around the corner and the controversy looming over us with its growing shadow, the moment is opportune to begin hearing the opinions of those who the outcome will most effect.

To preserve the integrity of the statements by those interviewed, each was asked the same prompt, provided here:

Hey, so I’m writing an article about the “Oscars So White” controversy and I’d like to get quotes from college student perspectives, so would you mind giving me your thoughts on the situation as a whole? To briefly fill you in on it, it started on Twitter when someone started #oscarssowhite after the nominations for best actor were announced and revealed to be solely white actors for the second year in a row. It started a movement with people arguing that black actors are equally deserving of Oscars but aren’t given the nominations because the academy voters are biased, whether consciously or unconsciously. There’s also a lot of counterargument backlash in which people are stating that the blame isn’t with the academy but rather the studios who are putting more white actors to work than actors of color. Basically the counterargument is that to place blame on the academy is to essentially place blame on the messenger for delivering bad news and the issue is larger than what’s being discussed. The Academy also reacted quickly to the controversy and released a statement saying that they’re changing their voting requirements now to promote diversity, which proponents of the #oscarssowhite movement took as a success because it means more diverse nominations and thus a more level playing field and the elimination of any bias in votes. The counterargument to that development, expressed by several vocal Academy voters, is that it compromises the voting as it relates to film and performance quality and essentially equates to affirmative action, creating a bit of a racial quota system. So if you could, in as many words as you’d like, share with me your take on the controversy as a whole and perhaps provide a few words on where you see the future of film headed.

Sydney Russakov, recent graduate of CSU Fullerton, Disney Interactive employee, 23

“While the Academy definitely shares part of the blame for #OscarsSoWhite, the main source of Hollywood’s “white problem” comes from the studios, casting directors, writers, producers, and everyone else that has their hands on a project. There’s a statistic out there that the Academy is 94% white and 77% male — that’s a clear problem and should be obvious to anyone. However, the deeper issue is that we have studio heads that are 94% white and 100% male choosing what we get to see as an audience and what gets passed onto the Academy. It’s great to get heated once a year when the Oscar nominations are announced, but people should start looking at what goes on every day in the industry. The institutional racism of Hollywood exists in every branch of the industry and changes need to be made before a movie is seen by the public; studio heads have to start buying diverse scripts, casting directors have to look at non-white actors, and distributors have to want to buy these films. We need to do a lot more than just blame the old men in the Academy that binge-watch nominees once a year.”

Katin Pavalko, Screenwriting student at Northern Arizona University, 21

“I do think the academy is definitely a bit one sided as in it’s comprised of old rich white dudes, much like our congress. This isn’t the first time it’s been a majority white ballot for the Oscars and I don’t think it was intentional but it brings to light the fact that it does desperately need to change.”

Tiffany Babb, Vice President of Caribbean Student Association at Pace University, 20

“I think that, yes, accusing the Academy of being unjust and excluding people of color from being on the ballot is their fault. But I also think that social injustice shares no one face, meaning that the academy isn’t the only one who should be held accountable. Everyone should be held accountable. It’s like what the train operator always says, “If you see something, say something.” Why?! Because in the long run it makes a difference. Because you’d be creating a path for equality and fairness in the film industry. It shouldn’t take a hashtag to awaken them. It should have been noted a long time ago when we saw that the number of black actors and actresses were depleting.”

Tayler Nicholson, Filmmaker & recent graduate of CSU Long Beach, 22

“It’s a tough argument to take sides on because in my opinion, there’s a lot that’s wrong with both ends of the spectrum. Of course, the Oscars are where the public sees the problem, but where does that problem originate from? Last year articles were coming out about how there’s not enough diversity in the voters, and now the focus has shifted to the lack of diversity in the voters’ choices. It’s no secret that the Academy is made up of a majority of white, older men and yes, that’s a problem. Why is it only talked about when the Oscar nominations come out though? This diversity issue isn’t just something that happens once a year when the oscars come around, it’s an ongoing problem that stretches further than just the academy. There’s issues with diversity in the Academy because the film industry has been run by white male bigwigs since the 30’s, and still is. The studio executives squeeze out a bunch of terrible, average, and sometimes decent films all for one common reason, and that is to make money. Studios don’t make films for art, they make films that they know will sell, with actors they know will bring fans to the box office. The academy voters are given a number of films to vote on for the oscars, typically all of them being a product of one of the major studios. The studios control a huge portion of the film industry, and therefore controls the actors that are put on screen. Another aspect that factors into the equation is the question of who is telling the story. A movie is built from a huge collaboration of people, meaning that there are a lot of perspectives in which the story is told from. Who wrote the story? Who’s directed it? What’s the context of it? A lot of cultures, races, and genders aren’t well represented on screen because more than 80% of the movies we see are primarily from a white male perspective (director, writer, producer, lead character, etc). And beyond that, the inequality stretches even further onto the physical production of the set. Google The Celluloid Ceiling for example.” Click here for reference.
“Basically what we’re seeing in the Oscar nominations is one small instance of a much larger problem in the film industry. And though it’s unfortunate and unfair, I think it’s on a path to improving, however slow it may be. If anything, I’m glad that people are speaking up and getting the word out that it’s not a perfect industry and that there needs to be some positive changes. I don’t think those changes will happen by boycotting the oscars, but hey, people are talking so that’s a start.”

Dylan Christiano, Goldenwest College, 21

“I think it’s complete bull. I mean, there are plenty of all black films and all black television shows (cue Fifty Shades of Black, Blackish, White Chicks, or any of the endless parade of Madea titles), so I don’t think things should structurally be changed just because it so happens that 2 years in a row the nominees are all white. I mean maybe it’s because back when these nominated actors were young, more white people pursued acting careers than black people, be it for economic or cultural reasons. I think that may be the reason for the imbalance we’re seeing now. So by that logic, at this point there’s obviously gonna be a lot more white people in movies than black, but that’s not to say it can’t and won’t change. At the end of the day, it all depends on the story being told. Now, is it the story’s fault that not a lot of black characters are in movies? Obviously white actors are going to be more likely to act in stories written by white filmmakers because that’s the perspective those writers are coming from. And that’s simply because it’s a historically white-dominated industry. Financial success funds further financial success, so it becomes a kind of tradition. So maybe it’s a problem that these white filmmakers have money because they have been successful but are unwilling to break that established tradition that they’ve become used to. Look, I see progress. But I don’t think it’s wise to force a change, it’s… inorganic. Real change happens in people’s minds, not the rule books.”

Rich Fosmire, CSU Long Beach, 21

“Yeah that’s been my big issue with it. Now every time a black actor is nominated they’ll be able to write it off as filling some quota. That’s always the way these racial issues play out. The problem with social media is people use it to build an image for themselves which causes everyone to be overly politically correct while others are overly racist. There aren’t a lot of people that take middle ground. It’s almost expected to take a side. I see it as setting up more problems than doing any actual good. Jada Pinkett is just whining about her husband not getting nominated for Concussion which sounded like a lame movie to begin with. And Spike Lee likes to stir up controversy every chance he gets. I’ve seen the guy’s name attached to more Yahoo headlines than I have movies. Then again, the academy has been known to be a pretty politically active group. They do seem to push the agendas of some movies more than others, but from an outsider’s perspective, who really knows how all that shit works.”

Andrew Geiger, Goldenwest College, 20

“I think I side with the film industry as a whole being more of a problem rather than the Academy because I think the Academy should try to award best performances from actors and if the black community doesn’t get to play the best roles, then it becomes an issue with the film industry itself. The Academy is bullshit and people put too much value on these awards outside of those working in the industry because they are opinion based anyway. I respect the Academy even less now that they are trying to have a diversity quota in an achievement based award ceremony, thus devaluing the awards altogether. The Academy has awards for other fields than just acting. If all these people are crying out about the Oscars being ‘all white’, then they should be sucking Alejandro Iñárritu’s d*** (omitted) for all the stuff he has accomplished with all of this ‘oppression’ he has faced. Lastly, I blame the average moviegoer. Generally, white male protagonist type movies are most successful. Then studios milk those kinds of movies to make the most profits. With more of those movies being made, it increases the demand for white male actors and those actors generally get the best movies because people pay to go see them the most. If people want to see more diversity, then they should stop paying to see white dudes in the lead roles and support more movies with different leads. Looking back on it, my top three movies of 2015 all had female leads: Room, Star Wars, and Mad Max.”

Leah Archaga, Orange Coast College, 21

“I find this controversy very interesting. I can see the points that both sides make but I don’t side with either, really. As far as people getting upset over the lack of equality, I wonder why it’s solely black. Why not Asian? Latino? If we want to talk about equality, shouldn’t we be asking for equality for all races? That’s what equality means in my book. I also thought of the BET network when this got brought up, the Black Entertainment Television Network. They have the BET awards each year, awards that are only meant for and allowed for black actors. I find it interesting that race has suddenly become an issue after all these years with the Oscars. The awards are simply awards, they are not facts. Just because a black, latino, asian, etc. actor didn’t get nominated, doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate him. Not everyone is a part of the academy, we can still honor and praise and admire those who weren’t nominated. I don’t think we should be upset with the academy, because it’s taking away from the few who are nominated this year. Actors work extremely hard, and not every actor is going to be nominated, and not every actor is going to win — regardless of race. I think that changing the voting requirements to fill the expressed desire for diversity is almost going to make the academy feel phony, and the votes not as genuine. It will be a much more conscious vote, and I believe it will come off that way. If the academy is going to be forced to walk on eggshells to avoid backlash, then I believe the awards will be an entirely different ceremony in itself. I fear it will begin to lack the passion it’s always had.”

It’s a rare opportunity and an often overlooked talent to patiently listen and observe before taking action. With a politically charged generation now holding the majority in American society, we seem perpetually caught in a flurry of sociopolitical movements. Movements in service of the greater good that are making it easier to consider oneself “pro” or “anti,” polarizing and dividing rather than uniting, ultimately with an effect counterproductive to that of the desired. In this so tumultuous terrain of ours, the young public is the most directly effected by such movements and the most direly starving for a patient voice to speak for those who find themselves in the middle, in hope of a collaborative future. These quotes represent a small faction of those patient voices shedding transparency and patience on a generation so desperately starving for such virtues. With this being said, the foundation on which we will stand for our lifetime is far from set in stone and the questions arise: Which voices will be heard and which will influence the direction in which we grow? What will be the future of film, and is there a singular movement that will define it? Does diplomacy have a place in social justice? Are we to discuss or fight in service of the future we will inevitably share?

The Academy is aware of the conversation happening and has vowed to make changes, to not remain a silent party. Whether or not those fundamental changes to their own system will have a lasting, authentic effect on the film industry will only be revealed in time. Whether or not the conversation will continue once the 2016 Oscars have been awarded and the curtains have fallen is in the hands of the people, the viewers. More will undoubtedly be revealed when the red carpet is rolled out and the most influential names in film come together for the 2016 Academy Awards on Sunday, February 28th.