Networks Make Oscars About Race, Ignore Black Actors’ Successes

The controversy over the racial makeup of this Sunday’s Oscars has consumed the attention of the national media. ABC, CBS and NBC evening news shows have done 21 stories on the #OscarsSoWhite issue this year, never once even asking whether the results are a scandal.

An Economist study of the number of minority awards questioned the very premise of the complaints, stating: “our analysis of film casts and awards shows, the number of black actors winning Oscars in this century has been pretty much in line with the size of America's overall black population.”

The study showed that blacks represent 12.6 percent of the American population, and black actors have been nominated for 10 percent  of Oscars since 2000. Blacks have also received 9 percent of top roles since 2000.

Yet, the networks hyped the controversy, frequently mentioning the “#OscarsSoWhite” hashtag and referring to the “backlash” resulting from “snubs” of minority films and actors.

CBS covered the controversy six times and complained that the promised new members of color added to the academy remained a “small fraction” of the voting board. NBC talked up the diversity issue in five stories; ABC brought it up 10 times. NBC and ABC both touted the Screen Actors Guild Awards where several actors of color were nominated. None of the three networks ever mentioned that the numbers of black nominees in the past few years were roughly proportional to the African-American population.

Network reports reinforced the activist view. “They will have to change the makeup of the academy,” predicted NBC Today co-host Al Roker, highlighting difference in award show voters.

“Between the two award shows there’s a sizable difference in voters. The SAG (Screen Actors Guild) Awards have four times as many members voting for its nominees.”

CBS News Correspondent Mireya Villarreal on CBS Evening News Jan. 18, remarked that the Academy will add 300 new members of color but emphasized this is still a “small fraction of of the 6,000-plus voting body” of the Academy.

CBS reported false numbers for the Academy voting body Jan. 18, on Evening News with Scott Pelley. The network stated that the voting body is 94 percent white male with a median age of 62. The correct numbers are 94 percent white and 77 percent male.

Of the Academy’s 6,000-odd voting members, 94 percent are white. However, “Black actors get speaking roles in rough proportion to their percentage of America’s population, according to a study of 600 top films from 2007-2013 at the Annenberg Center for Communication and Journalism,” reported the Economist.


Hollywood’s Second Year of Controversy

2015 host Neil Patrick Harris used his monologue to complain about the racial makeup of the Oscars. "Today we honor Hollywood's best and whitest. Sorry … brightest," he said.

The controversy returned this year, and several prominent actors, writers, and producers said they will boycott the ceremony for the lack of nominations of blacks and other minorities. Actress Jada Pinkett Smith’s  video saying she will not be attending went viral. Director Spike Lee said he will be at a Nets game with his wife.

“At the Oscars … people of color are always welcomed to give out awards … even entertain. But we are rarely recognized for our artistic accomplishments. Should people of color refrain from participating all together?” Pinkett Smith tweeted.

The New Yorker paid homage to the allegations against the Academy with its Feb. 29, cover, “Privileged Characters,” which showed darker Oscar figures held back by a rope as lighter figures are allowed through on the red carpet.

On Jan. 14, Oscar President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is black, announced that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences would implement radical reforms to diversify its membership. The reforms include doubling the number of women and minority members by 2020. Perhaps the most striking reform is that voting members must be “active in motion pictures” and renew their voting status every 10 years.

The hastily proposed reforms are not yet in accord with the Academy’s bylaws and would mean substantially changing them. Three new governors of color promised by Isaacs would usually be nominated and confirmed by the board and approved by the individual branches of the academy. Isaacs’ proposed reforms must pass a governors meeting board vote after next Sunday’s Awards ceremony.

CEO Dawn Hudson insisted the changes were “not about political correctness … unless you have the best artists voting on the Academy Awards, you don't have a real reflection of the best of our film culture.”

Critics have blamed casting offices and drama schools in addition to the Academy.

“We need a multipronged approach, which involves the studio system, the agency system, the talent representation system,” said DeVon Franklin, former senior vp production at Sony's Columbia Pictures, producer and chairman of Franklin Entertainment.

Actress Sasheer Zamata said, “ I don’t know when this started happening, but some people are using the word diversity to mean 'anyone but white people,'” She emphasized that all races, including whites must be represented and suggested looking for new stories (like Star Trek) that feature people of color.

Other Academy members were unwilling to accept the insinuation that the Academy is racist.

Penelope Ann Miller, known for Carlito's Way and The Artist pushed back against criticism.

"I voted for a number of black performers, and I was sorry they weren't nominated," she told The Hollywood Reporter. “I think when you make race the issue, it can divide people even further, and that’s what I worry about,” she remarked, adding that excellent performances by white actors like Spotlight’s Michael Keaton were overlooked as well.

Jeremy Larner, who won an Oscar for 1972's The Candidate and was a civil rights activist in the 1960s said, “I have voted for many people of color for awards … I happen to think Straight Outta Compton is not a great film for reasons of structure and substance.”

“The goal was to snatch a lot of favorable PR, give the appearance of change, and make the protest go away,” Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable said of the Academy’s promised reforms.

#OscarsSoWhite isn’t the only left-wing issue at this year’s Oscars. Several movies with liberal agendas were nominated, including Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress in Carol, a lesbian love story. Also nominated is the transgender film The Danish Girl for Best Picture and its two stars Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress.

Tell the Truth 2016

Mairead McArdle
Mairead McArdle
Mairead McArdle is a writer for MRC Culture.