Whose version of ‘diversity’ did the Oscars celebrate?

The US film industry is still controlled by older white men.

Lupita Nyong'o won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role [AP]

In many ways, Hollywood is a fenced-off community. It serves as the guardian of public accolades for excellence in film and representation. Yet, its gatekeepers are still overwhelmingly white, male and old, while the world it seeks to depict is the opposite. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is no different from broader trends in Hollywood itself. The voters who determined the winners of the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2 are a testament to the white homogeneity and hegemony in Hollywood.

People of colour have always been on the margins of Hollywood. Recognition for the narratives and films that critically engage the lives and histories of people of colour have consistently been overlooked. Oscar nods to Hattie McDaniel, Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry and Jamie Foxx were generally lauded as moments of racial progress, allegedly highlighting an industry moving away from racial exclusion and toward diversity.

Yet, unmasking the meaning and motivations behind Hollywood “diversity” reveals that gatekeeper politics – not racial progress – dictates which people of colour are let inside, and the shape, complexion and colour of the faces that remain fenced outside of Hollywood’s gates.

Inside the gates

One can drive from Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, the site for the Oscars, and easily take a route through a tapestry of Asian, Black and Latino neighbourhoods. Yet, the images that are often celebrated within spaces like the Dolby Theatre obscure or outright misrepresent the lives of people who live in these communities, often relying on tired and outdated stereotypes.

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What, and specifically who, is behind this exclusion? There are roughly 5,800 voters who make up the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and their identity is kept a secret. However, their demographics help explain the racial exclusion in Hollywood, and more importantly, the shallow brand of “diversity” many have lauded.

Ninety-four percent of the Oscar voters are white; 77 percent are men. Blacks, as of 2012, comprised only 2 percent of the Academy, while Latino voters were less than 2 percent. The Academy’s Executive Branch is 98 percent white. Other communities of colour, including Asian, Arab and Indigenous Americans, did not even fare in the study.

In line with its overwhelming whiteness, the median age on the Academy is 62. In short, old white men are making movies, casting them and determining which performances merit an Oscar. Their racial worldview, combined with their political sensibilities, dictates diversity, structures the images of colour we consume as moviegoers, and shape the way we perceive our lived realities.

Negotiating Hollywood “progress”

With limited exception, the Academy has awarded actors of colour who played roles that perpetuate racial caricatures and embed societal stereotypes. Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Oscar, won for her portrayal of a mammy in “Gone with the Wind”. Comedienne Mo’Nique won “Best Supporting Actress” for her performance as an abusive and neglectful mother in “Precious“, while Denzel Washington took the “Best Male Performance” for his role as the crooked LAPD cop in “Training Day“.

These characters perpetuated established stereotypes Hollywood gatekeepers are more than willing to cast and, to deflect allegations of racism, award with Oscars to prop up a superficial notion of diversity.

Yet, representations of Blackness that defy racial stereotypes and challenge societal discrimination are almost never awarded, and seldom nominated. Not a single Spike Lee film has received an Oscar, nor have independent films directed by women of colour, like Ava DuVernay, received nominations. Moreover, critically acclaimed performances such as Washington’s “Malcolm X” or Angela Bassett’s in “What’s Love Got to Do With It” were slighted. This year, “Fruitvale Station”, a film that reflects the persistent racial inequality and violence faced by people of colour, was snubbed in its entirety.

The history of the Oscars illuminates that progress is only attainable to the extent that it aligns with the gatekeepers’ interests, while the images showcased on screens and awarded with trophies must also converge with white sensibilities. As articulated in University of Denver Law Professor Nancy Leong’s “Racial Capitalism“, Hollywood – like most halls of power in America – benefits from a “racial diversity” that commodifies Black and Brown actors to promote white interests or worldviews.

Mirroring the Supreme Court’s position on affirmative action in Grutter and Fisher, the actors of colour are cast into films and awarded with Oscars to benefit a film industry overwhelmingly composed of whites. These films often feed into a narrative that discrimination occurred only in the distant past and was defeated with the help of heroic whites. Hollywood gatekeepers are not facilitating entry by non-whites to correct past and present exclusion, but rather for the economic and political benefit netted to them by actors of colour.

This parasitic relationship brings in billions at the box office and props up paper-thin diversity, but has not paved meaningful inroads into decision-making roles for the abundance of Black and Brown talent in Hollywood. For example, an Oscar win for a Black actor often fails to yield the type of complicated, nuanced roles that are often enjoyed by their white counterparts following an Academy Award.

Brilliantly black: Lupita Nyong’o and Hollywood colourism

Despite this, we see rays of hope from the many talented women and men of colour who continue to tell their stories through television and film. Indeed, no one exemplifies this hope more than recent Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o. More than a “Black actress”, Lupita Nyong’o from “12 Years a Slave” is a transformative figure who seldom, if ever, stars on Hollywood silver screens and demands A-list attention on its red carpets.

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Nyong’o stole the show in the Steve McQueen film, and for the first time in mainstream theatres, vividly exposed the crucible of horrors endured by enslaved women. Nyongo’s “Patsey” was not the film’s central protagonist, but her performance occupied centre-stage in our minds long after many of us left the theatre.

Her talent undeniable, Nyong’o embodies the kind of Black women Hollywood has not only marginalised, but also disparaged. Unlike Halle Berry or Beyonce, Nyong’o’s Blackness cannot be blurred by Hollywood’s endemic colourism, and nor blunted by its production and perpetuation of white beauty.

For most of its history, Hollywood has opened its gates to Black women whose aesthetic aligns with the white standard. This constitutes a token form of “diversity”, devalues the broad array of beauty in our society and, more insidiously, sends a clear message that the image of Blackness appearing in mainstream theatres and Oscars’ stages will be shaped by whites. In Hollywood, Nyong’o’s Blackness, as she so eloquently stated, “is an obstacle for her to overcome”, which pre-empted and sidelined the careers of so many talented performers before her.

Her beauty, body and Blackness are affronts to both the structural colourism and racism in Hollywood. Without one word, Nyongo’s ascendancy relays a stern message to gatekeepers: “Diversity” cannot be unilaterally determined by a handful of white gatekeepers.

Are Oscar victories grounds for celebration?

Indeed, Nyong’o is a most deserving winner of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Her depiction of Patsey imbued the character with a degree of humanity that was denied to Black men and women under the crushing system of chattel slavery. “Twelve Years a Slave”, and her performance within it, reminds audiences of the roots of United State’s contemporary reality of racial inequality and exclusion. Her character, as well as the many others in the film, demonstrates the sensitivity and complexity that can be brought to bear when people of colour are at the helm of their own stories.

Nevertheless, her win is also a stark reminder of the narrow roles and opportunities for women and people of colour in Hollywood. One need only reflect on the types of roles that have yielded Best Supporting Actress awards for African American women. Three of the six wins for African American actresses in that category have been for either maids or slaves. This statistic demonstrates the tremendous challenge that Black women and other people of colour face as they attempt to inject nuance, complexity and humanity into roles that are often constrained by a lack of imagination.

Nyong’o stated during her acceptance speech that, “No matter where you are from, your dreams are valid.” Nyong’o’s victory affirmed the validity of marginalised dreams and one can only hope that her victory will galvanise efforts to push back on the Hollywood gatekeepers who grant entry only to those dreams that align with its values.

Khaled A Beydoun is a professor at UCLA School of Law (follow on Twitter @KhaledBeydoun).

Priscilla A Ocen is a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles (follow on Twitter @pannocen). Both teach Critical Race Theory.