#OscarsSoWhite, It Hired Jimmy Kimmel To Host

Yes, this year’s Oscar nominees are more diverse. But why go with white mediocrity for the hosting gig?

When Chris Rock hosted the Academy Awards in 2016, he became the first person of color in over a decade to stand at the center of the most watched non-sports event on television. The last person of color to do it? Chris Rock, in 2005.

The Emmy-winning comedian took the stage on a February night where, for the second straight year, every single acting nominee was white. Thanks in large part to April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign, the mainstream media and the Academy itself were well-aware of the event’s whiteness problem; Rock’s hosting gig offered a rare opportunity for a Black man to directly comment on the continued lack of inclusion at cinema’s highest levels. Regardless of his performance, or reasons for his hiring, it also allowed the Academy to bolster its claim that it was (capital-S) serious about creating change.

Fast forward to 2017, and we’re in the midst of a very different-looking awards season. With Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight scooping up multiple Oscar nominations this morning — and films like Fences, Hidden Figures, Lion, and Loving all being recognized as well — we know that this year’s ceremony will certainly include some more faces of color than the last two years. As many are trumpeting, seven of the 20 acting nominations have gone to people of color.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that #OscarsSoWhite is cancelled, as some folks have strangely suggested. The Academy rewarded some deserving people and films this morning, but years of systemic exclusion are not undone by a single ceremony. In 2004, six of the 20 acting nominations went to people of color, including eventual winners Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman, and that milestone did nothing to prevent the debacles of 2015 and 2016. In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win Best Director, but no woman has been nominated since, and there was actually an overall decrease in women directing top Hollywood films in 2016.

Years of systemic exclusion are not undone by a single ceremony.

So while it’s absolutely worth celebrating that we have more nominees of color this year, white people (most of them men) still dominate most of the categories and will almost certainly be the vast majority of winners throughout the night.

And then there’s the matter of the event’s host.

When it was reported in December that the Academy had tapped late-night star Jimmy Kimmel to host the 89th version of their prestigious awards show, it wasn’t so much shocking as it was a depressing reminder that Hollywood elites are still lacking a complete understanding of how exclusion really works — or why exactly representation matters.

The Academy controls who gets to be a member and who doesn’t — a power they exercised in 2016 to try and change the diversity of their voting body — but they ultimately have little control over the votes themselves. One thing they have near-total control over, though, is the production of their ceremony, and the message it sends to the world.

Tracee Ellis Ross, one of many alternative possibilities to host.

While one might assume they are limited contractually by agreements made with the network that broadcasts the Oscars (ABC, home of Jimmy Kimmel Live), according to Variety, the current contract gives the Academy final say “on producers, hosts and other production decisions.” And even if ABC did include a clause ensuring a preference for their own talent, it’s worth noting that this contract was just renegotiated last August, meaning the Academy had a chance to change it up after being called out for their lack of diversity two years in a row. Moreover, it’s not as if ABC doesn’t have talented people of color with hosting experience on their payroll — like Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson of black-ish, who have co-hosted the last two BET Awards.

The presence of Kimmel at the center of the Academy Awards this year is telling of the true nature of America’s systemic barriers to racial diversity and inclusion. Following Jimmy Fallon’s cringeworthy and intentionally non-disruptive routine at this year’s Globes, and just a few weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Kimmel is poised to give us yet another nationally televised ode to white mediocrity this February.

It’s not that those in power today are unaware that “diversity matters”; it’s that they don’t seem to see the harm in continuing to privilege white men at the same time. So perhaps the more revealing question to ask today is not why there isn’t a person of color hosting the Oscars in 2017, but instead, why exactly is Jimmy Kimmel?

Last year, The Wrap wrote that Rock, as a Black comedian who often centers race in his work, was “the right Oscar host at the right moment” — referencing the ongoing conversation around #OscarsSoWhite and the Black Lives Matter movement. But if that was true in 2016, what has changed in the last 12 months?

One could argue that the Academy went for Kimmel in an effort to boost ratings. And it’s true that the 2016 Oscars, despite Rock’s eagerly anticipated monologue, were not a ratings win. In fact, it marked an 8-year low for the event. But the effect of Reign’s campaign on those numbers can’t be underestimated, as folks like Jada Pinkett-Smith and Spike Lee — joined by many online — were publicly boycotting the ceremony for its overwhelming whiteness.

Chris Rock hosting the 2016 Oscars (Credit: flickr/Disney/ABC Television Group)

Plus, though Rock did indeed open up the Oscars with some incisive jokes (which surely made some white viewers uncomfortable), his perspective on gender — and its intersection with race — was limited. There were also some anti-Asian jokes which, combined with the above factors, may have impacted viewership over the course of the evening (as an important aside, Asian representation at the awards has historically been dismal). And regardless, the Oscars have had rocky numbers for a while now, especially when the winning films haven’t been seen by most Americans.

Moreover, diversity seems to help with awards-show viewership, not hinder it (because, you know, the American audience is diverse). It does not feel coincidental that in a year with more Black-centering films nominated, and shows like Atlanta and black-ish among the winners, this year’s Globes were the highest rated in three years.

In a year with more Black-centering films nominated, this year’s Globes were the highest rated in three years.

But perhaps the most salient challenge to the argument that Kimmel would be good for ratings is the fact that, historically, he has not been. His nightly talk show lags far behind Fallon’s, and when he hosted the 68th Emmy Awards in 2016, it was the least watched Emmys ever (like in all of history). It would be laughable to argue that Kimmel is a bigger draw than Rock, but he’s also probably not a bigger draw at the moment than any fellow late-night hosts, including cable stars like Trevor Noah.

So if it’s not for ratings, why him?

As early as last January, after the premiere of The Birth of a Nation at Sundance, it was predicted that this year’s acting nominees would not be all-white, and that the “curse” of #OscarsSoWhite was broken. Which might explain the Academy’s confidence in naming Jennifer Todd and Michael De Luca as producers of the 2017 telecast — and why ABC’s favorite guy ended up with the job.

In the last decade, only one person of color has produced an Oscars telecast. All of these live programs have been directed by white men as well.

In the last decade, only one person of color has produced an Oscars telecast: Reginald Hudlin, who co-produced last year’s Rock-hosted show. All of these live programs have been directed by white men as well. So starting again with white producers displays a continued deference to the way things are done in Hollywood. It’s not that Todd or De Luca are incapable of producing a show which centers people of color, only that this was statistically unlikely to happen. This is the same reason Hollywood films, and those subsequently nominated for awards, are so consistently white and about men. Study after study shows that films directed by women are more likely to include women, and that across the industry, people of color are more likely to hire people of color.

So did the Academy actively try not to center people of color at the 2017 Oscars? They probably wouldn’t describe it that way. After two years of harsh criticism from the media, the governing body may have assumed that the likelihood of nominees of color would return things to “normal” — and in the “normal” world of the Academy Awards, putting a straight white man on stage is simply what you do. It’s uncontroversial.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy’s president, explained the typicalness of this year’s choice to The Hollywood Reporter last month:

“Jimmy has the qualities of all the great hosts. He knows who he is, he knows the audience, and he knows how to captain a ship with many moving parts.”

In other words, the man is already on TV, he interviews movie stars nightly, and he has hosted other big ceremonies in the past. On the surface, regardless of race or gender, he appears very qualified for this job.

But then Kimmel didn’t arrive at his position independent of his identities or based purely on his talent. He was hired to be a late-night host at ABC after previously co-hosting The Man Show, a truly terrible variety program on Comedy Central which ended each episode with mostly thin white women jumping on trampolines in slow motion. Kimmel created the program with Adam Corolla, but it only saw the light of day because we live in a world where straight white men dominate the entertainment business. Where they own networks and want to see things like The Man Show before they go to bed at night.

Throughout his entire career, Jimmy Kimmel has been given an advantage, in more ways than one. At this point it’s almost as if people are investing in him just to justify their previous investments in him, kind of like they have with Ryan Reynolds, who was given the chance to star in Deadpool after years of mediocrity (his film even got some Oscar buzz, though it didn’t end up with any nominations). Meanwhile, at the big film studios, white directors like Marc Webb are often entrusted with $100 million blockbusters after having made only a single low-budget indie, while only one Black woman in history — at any level of experience — has ever been given a $100 million budget.

Throughout his entire career, Jimmy Kimmel has been given an advantage.

Similarly, only one woman has led the Oscars alone in the last decade, Ellen Degeneres (Anne Hathaway was a co-host in 2011), and the only woman to do it before her was Whoopi Goldberg, who hosted by herself four times between 1994 and 2002 (Goldberg was also the first and still only other person of color, besides Rock, to host solo). The Oscars historically tend to give this job to an experienced and famous male comedian, but recently that rule has been less strictly applied — at least when it comes to white men. Since 2009, the hosts have included white guys from more varied acting backgrounds, including Hugh Jackman, Alec Baldwin, and Neil Patrick Harris.

And then there was Seth MacFarlane. Not only had the Family Guy creator never hosted a major ceremony before he sang “We Saw Your Boobs” on stage in 2013, he was also not a movie star. But just as Colin Trevorrow went from the indie Safety Not Guaranteed to directing the epic Jurassic World, the Oscars trusted MacFarlane with the job instead of say, Kevin Hart, perhaps the most popular comedian alive, or Aziz Ansari, who has hosted the MTV Movie Awards and sold out Madison Square Garden. And while it’s true that McFarlane has created one of the most successful animated shows ever (albeit one rooted in misogyny), and directed two blockbuster films, it’s equally true that former Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore produced hits like black-ish and Insecure this year, in addition to hosting the White House Correspondents Dinner.

There is no shortage of potential hosts of color for the Oscars to choose from.

Also, if the intention was to be more relevant, what about Key and Peele or SNL’s Leslie Jones? If actors like Franco get a shot, why not former Oscar nominee Salma Hayek? If Frank Sinatra hosted in 1963, why can’t Beyonce today?

The point is, there is no shortage of potential hosts of color for the Oscars to choose from, just as there is no lack of women who could direct the next Jurassic Park film, or women of color who could star in it. But it would seem Hollywood still has a limited understanding of how centering white men on TV contributes to the entertainment industry’s whiteness problem, let alone how to address it. Last year, Courtney E. Martin, writing at OnBeing, observed that institutions like the Academy seem to view including people of color as a “clinical” issue, rather than one of fairness, justice, or success:

“They finally look around and see the preponderance of whiteness in the room. Where before there was just the absence of race, now, when they see non-white people, it’s through a pinhole. They don’t see people — quirky, talented, variable people; they see blackness. They see a box checked; a problem solved; maybe even a shame lifted.”

Though the Oscars may be more aware of their statistical monotony, they continue to see whiteness through a pinhole as well — where white people, especially men, are rewarded solely for their talent, and these hiring decisions are somehow separated from issues of “diversity.” As if white men have no skin color or gender themselves. Producer Jennifer Todd actually said in this morning’s announcement video that Kimmel was chosen because they “were looking for someone with universal appeal.”

Yet the issue here is not just that there remains unaddressed systemic bias against people of color in the larger industry, but that being a straight white comedian, who has no real history of addressing race or gender in his work, should actually make one unqualified to host right now.

If the primary function of the opening monologue is to provide some commentary on the year in film, then this year’s Oscars’ host could explain why the particular success of Moonlight matters so much, and spotlight the casts of films like Moana and Rogue One, which are at least not dominated by white guys. They might reflect on how Hidden Figures has inspired Black women and girls across the country, and truly address the Trump-ian elephant in the room. But instead of a host who can riff on cinema’s ability to create hope and celebrate resistance — providing some relevant comedic perspective on the frightening moment — it will be the former creator of The Man Show in the spotlight, speaking to a country that just elected a white misogynist to the highest seat in the land.

Being a straight white comedian, who has no real history of addressing race or gender in his work, should actually make one unqualified to host right now.

So why is Jimmy Kimmel hosting the Academy Awards this year? The same reason the majority of directors in Hollywood are white men. Or why there are three white Jimmys on late-night television and zero women of color. The same reason Halle Berry is still the only Black woman to ever win Best Actress. And our new president is who he is.

Because while it’s exciting to see more faces of color amongst the nominees today, the Oscars, like all institutions of power in this country, remain deeply invested in the dominance of straight white men. So much so that they actually think Jimmy Kimmel is the best person for this job.

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