By SHARVARI JOHARI ’17
When Lupita Nyong’o won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress this Sunday for “12 Years A Slave,” and then the same film went on to win Best Picture, I was beside myself with excitement. “Her” was my personal favorite film of the year, but “12 Years a Slave” winning Best Picture meant more to me. Why? Because the Oscars have a serious race problem.
Let me first start by saying I am not a member of the Black community, so I might not be the best spokesperson here. However I am a minority, a woman, a film lover and keen observer of awards shows. With those qualifications I have noticed that, beyond a doubt, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a serious case of institutionalized white patriarchy.
In the 85 years that the Academy has been presenting the Oscars, only one woman has won for Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow). Only one woman of color has won Best Actress (Halle Berry). Only 6% of the Oscar voters are people of color and only 23% are female. There have been no acting awards given to any people of Asian, Latino or Native American descent.
The lack of nominations for minorities is because of fewer roles for actors of color. This remains a problem because of the producers and writers of the Academy who create major motion pictures. Ninety-eight percent of the producers and writers in the Academy are white. The red carpet has a real diversity issue. Writers and producers tend to self-identify when creating a movie, creating characters like themselves. If you and everyone around you is a white male, you will make movies about white males.
The people who make and vote on the movies are mostly white, and this absence of diversity spawns a vicious cycle. The Academy applauds and gives awards to movies featuring white male characters. This subtly implies that movies about white males are better. So in a quest to make more Oscar bait, even more movies about white males are made.
The internet begs the Academy to give Leonardo DiCaprio the Oscar he deserves. But the fact is that Leonardo DiCaprio gets to be in two or three Oscar-worthy films a year. Equally talented actors of color like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Octavia Spencer get fewer roles and thus fewer nomination opportunities. The Academy awards movies with white savior plots such as “The Help” and “The Blind Side.”
“Fruitvale Station,” a movie about the unnecessary murder of a young black man by an aggressive white police officer in Oakland, California, was the indie breakout of the year. Steven Boone, writing for rogerebert.com, described Micheal B. Jordan’s performance as “flawless.” The movie was incredibly acclaimed at Sundance and by reviewers across the board. Yet when it came to award season, it was completely shut out. “12 Years a Slave” had already consumed voters’ minority slot. We are happy to reward Leonardo DiCaprio for starring in films about getting high on quaaludes and sleeping with hookers. Meanwhile, an honest portrayal of harmful racial profiling in modern-day America doesn’t make the cut.
This inequality was also demonstrated when critics decided that the end of “12 Years a Slave” was anticlimactic. How? Solomon faces incredible adversity and bravely perseveres. The result is an incredible and miraculous return to his family 12 years later. It seems anticlimactic because there is no clear path to the abolition of slavery in the movie. Nyong’o’s character Patsey will continue to endure the hell she’s living. Solomon repeatedly asks the white people that surround him for help and they refuse. The one that does help does so passively. White Americans don’t get to be the saviors.
This race disparity is why Lupita Nyong’o is incredibly important to Hollywood. She represents a new age in diversity as Hollywood’s new “It Girl.” She has been shown wearing every single color known to man. She is the muse of reputable fashion designers and has been featured on many best-dressed lists. This same path skyrocketed the careers of Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. Nyong’o as the new It Girl is incredibly beneficial because she is a dark skinned woman in a culture that white-washes actresses of color. Tell me this is not a problem and I will show you Mindy Kaling’s black-and-white Elle cover when her fellow white actresses are always shown in color. Beyonce’s skin is often dramatically lightened for her L’Oreal ads. Society needs to see a dark woman of color praised as a paragon of beauty. A fashion and beauty icon with dark skin can fight the subconscious message that lighter is better.
But will Nyong’o get the same types of roles as Jennifer Lawrence? Unfortunately, the answer is most likely no. Compare the careers of young nominees such as Abigail Breslin and Anna Paquin to the careers of Keisha Castle-Hughes and Quvenzhané Wallis. Breslin and Paquin were steadily given work throughout their career. Wallis and Castle-Hughes have either struggled to find work or faded into obscurity. Few people object when white actors depict people of color, such as Johnny Depp playing Tonto in the “Lone Ranger” or Ben Affleck playing Latino Tony Mendez. Yet when an actor of color plays a character who could have been white there is usually an uproar. When Idris Elba played Hemidall in the new Thor movie, people declared that a Nordic god couldn’t possibly be black.
However, there is hope. Slowly but surely new barriers have been broken down in the awards process. Alfonso Cuaron just became the first Latino to ever win Best Director. Steve McQueen was the first black director to win a Best Picture Oscar. Robert Lopez, who won Best Original Song for “Let It Go,” is the first man of color to E.G.O.T (an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award) More and more, people are starting to notice the diversity problem in the Oscars. Lupita Nyong’o told every child that “no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” Diversity is coming, and fast; I only urge the Academy not to block the way.