I won’t for a moment suggest that there’s not a problem with the Academy being overwhelmingly white, or that it’s not a shame that for the second year in a row, there haven’t been any minority actors recognized in the twenty slots available to actors. But I will suggest, as Whoopi Goldberg does, that we ought to redirect our boycotts to where they rightly belong: on the studios that do not deign to fill their major dramatic pictures (or even their smaller indie flicks) with a more diverse and representative cast of actors. As Viola Davis said, while accepting her Emmy Award–and I’m paraphrasing slightly–you can’t win an award (much less be nominated) for roles that don’t exist. Given that the Oscars have no control over the quality or casting of the films that come out in a given year, it seems naive to blame them for not doing a better job recognizing minority actors. It’s that whole correlation/causation issue: yes, these results indicate the results of years of systemic racism (not only because the easiest way to become an Academy voter is to be nominated for one of its awards), but they don’t demonstrate that the Academy is to blame for the lack of nominees, even if you can name one or two subjective choices who just had to have been snubbed purely out of sinister spite.
Assuming that no legal bylaws about new inductees or the loss of membership rights existed and we could correct for the makeup of the Academy overnight to reflect, say, 2010 values (basically 63% white, 12% Black, 5% Asian, and 16% Hispanic or Latino), this means that to balance the existing 6,000 or so voters, 94% of whom are white, you’d need roughly 3,000 new members, all of whom are minorities. And because I doubt that you can name that many film-industry professionals who qualify, you’d have to expand the scope beyond those who are in Hollywood, at which point, what even are the Academy Awards celebrating? It’s meant to be an insular, self-congratulatory affair–we’re the ones who assign it a value by tuning in to the awards, as if they actually matter to anybody. (At least the Golden Globes are honest about how subjective and meaningless they really are.)
But let’s ignore that. Let’s further assume that you’ve managed to get your new members. There’s still the issue in that the Oscars attempt to reward merit (the quality of the performance) over diversity, and while that might sound a bit Ayn Rand-like, this is sort of the point of all merit-based awards. And along those lines, if you review the list of all the films released in 2015, you might see a problem if you’re trying to reward minority actors. Ignoring the sort of roles that are rarely nominated, regardless of race, and all the insubstantially lowbrow comedies–or even including them–how many minority actors were viable for a nomination? Set that against how many white actors were viable. And I get it, I get it: it still seems implausible to you that twenty slots, in back-to-back years could have all gone to white actors. Except that it’s not really twenty slots, is it? All the actors that I’ve heard mentioned in this year’s controversy would have been competing for Best Actor, not Best Supporting Actor. And they’re almost all male. Which means that they’re really competing for a paltry five spots. If you don’t concede at this point that it’s at least possible for there to be another reason for the nominations to be #SoWhite other than racism, then you need to take a remedial case in statistics, or show me the numbers that you’re working with.
Finally, one suggestion that’s been floated by some–and I appreciate these, because they’re at least plausible, positive ideas for progress and change, rather than just negative anti-Oscar rhetoric–is that the nominee categories be expanded, as has been done for Best Picture in the past. This is logical: after all, there are far more films being made today than when the Academy began, which makes the possibility of a snub so much greater. I’d definitely propose some sort of fixed ratio for expanding these categories based on the growth of the industry. But I emphasize the term fixed ratio, because this otherwise becomes about gaming the number of nominees each year: i.e., the voters keep adding nominees until they’ve got at least one placate-the-masses minority in place. This also runs the risk of making the Oscars a value-less award: Who cares if you win, if it no longer suggests that you’re the “best” actor, so much as the one we most culturally want to recognize? (The Academy has done this before, and it never pleases people. Think back to, say, 2006’s winner, Crash: even the people involved in making that film think that Munich and Brokeback Mountain were better films.
I understand the gut-level response that’s made some people speak of boycotting the Oscars. (Personally, I think it would be a bit stronger if someone like Will Smith, for example, were to boycott the awards in a year in which he had been nominated, out of disgust that other deserving minority actors had not also been recognized.) But I urge them to put their money where their mouths are and to actually fix the problem where it exists–within the studios. Big-named celebrities like George Clooney have the resources to get projects that feature minorities off the ground, and they should do so. Civilian filmgoers like the rest of us can refuse to see films that cast in monotone, or which are made by studios that have a poor track record of utilizing minorities. After all, while certain members of certain studios might be racist, the studios themselves are driven by capitalism and commercialism, and if diversity will increase sales at the box office, they’re likely to welcome it. (That’s part of why the success of Star Wars: Episode VII is so important.) Change doesn’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen by “fixing” the Academy (which literally equates, in this example, to neutering any power it holds), so let’s all harness our anger toward an actual, realizable goal over the next few years.