Graham: Oscar whiteout a major problem for Hollywood

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Leonardo DiCaprio might finally get his hands on that Academy Award this year, but the actor’s slow climb to the Oscar podium has taken a backseat to what has become the defining story of this year’s awards ceremony.

That is the diversity — or rather, the total lack of diversity — among this year’s acting nominees. Of the 20 actors singled out in the Actor, Actress and Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress categories, every last one of them is white.

That was the case last year, too. Two years ago, there were three actors of color in the mix. In the last five years, just nine of the 100 acting nominees have been nonwhite.

That puts the Oscars way behind ceremonies such as the Grammys (which over the last five years, 30 of the 100 nominees in the top four categories have been nonwhite) and the Emmys (which last year, a record 18 acting nominees were actors of color).

Those stats reveal the Oscars — and Hollywood — to be embarrassingly out of step with both the times and society.

The total whiteness of this year’s Oscar nominees was well-documented when nominations were announced on Jan. 14. But this week, the clamor became a roar, as Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith announced they would not be attending this year’s ceremony because of the issue.

Michael Moore and actors George Clooney and David Oyelowo also spoke out about the controversy, and there’s been talks of a boycott of the Feb. 28 ceremony. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs — who is black — issued a statement this week addressing the growing concern.

“I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion,” wrote Isaacs. “This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes. The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership.”

About that membership: The Academy is something of a secret society, like those cloaked and masked figures in “Eyes Wide Shut.” Reports suggest there are around 6,200 Academy members (around 1,300 of them vote in the acting categories), and like the Supreme Court, voters are awarded a lifetime membership to the club. Or at least that’s how it did work, until this week. On Friday, Academy members received a letter stating that going forward, each new member’s voting status will last 10 years and will only be renewed if a member stays active in motion pictures during that decade. After three 10-year terms, a member will be granted lifetime status.

There is no public list of who makes up the Academy, but a 2012 L.A. Times study found the voting body is 94-percent white and 77-percent male with a median age of 62, which makes it resemble a very rich version of a Jimmy Buffett tailgate. (In Isaacs’ statement, she noted strides had been made to diversify the membership in the last four years, but “the change is not coming as fast as we would like.” On Friday, it was announced the Academy plans to double its number of female and minority members by 2020.)

The issue has been a sticking point for decades. In 1988, Eddie Murphy appeared on the Oscars telecast as a presenter and roasted the Academy for its lack of recognition of black actors, during a year where Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman were up for awards. Murphy joked at the time a black actor wasn’t “due” to win an Oscar until 2004, though Washington won his first Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor, in 1990 for “Glory.”

This year’s problem didn’t arise from a lack of choices. Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation,” Michael B. Jordan in “Creed,” Samuel L. Jackson in “Hateful Eight” and Will Smith in “Concussion” were all in the conversation when this year’s nominees were announced, as were Guatemalan actor Oscar Isaac (electrifying in “Ex-Machina”) and Puerto Rican actor Benicio Del Toro (stunning — and legitimately snubbed — in “Sicario”).

Taking it further, there was Jason Mitchell, who impressed as Eazy E in “Straight Outta Compton,” Teyonah Parris, the standout in Spike Lee’s wild “Chi-Raq” and Mya Taylor, unforgettable in “Tangerine.” Almost no one saw “Z for Zachariah,” but Chiwetel Ejiofor did quietly ferocious work in it. Did all of them deserve nominations? No. But should at least one of those 10 actors have been in the mix? Unquestionably.

But it’s not even about cherry picking actors of color come Oscar time. The problem is a year-round matter of inclusion. Diverse films made by diverse filmmakers with diverse viewpoints are still treated like specialty products in Hollywood, and the movies as a whole are not representing the reality of life in America.

“This isn’t about Oscars,” says Robin Means Coleman, a professor of communication studies and Afroamerican and African studies at the University of Michigan. “This is about a Hollywood structure.”

The good news in all this is this year’s Oscar host: Chris Rock. There is no one better to satirize Hollywood’s race issue; he’s already called this year’s Oscars the “white BET awards.” His sure-to-be stinging opening monologue is shaping up to be the evening’s highlight, and by the time he’s done with the room, even Leo might wish he’d have stayed home.

‘88th Academy Awards’

7 p.m. Feb. 28