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The Academy Awards: A white privilege?

The Academy Awards: A white privilege?

By Archit Jain

More often than not, Hollywood likes to congratulate itself with some self-indulgent rags-to-riches stories. Tales of how nondescript underdogs rose to fame because of their toil and dedication are not difficult to spot. Jennifer Lopez, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, the list of celebrities who ‘started from nothing’ yet made it big in movie-making’s hallowed portals, is long.

Unprivileged in the true sense?

But sometimes I wonder: Didn’t they start with whiteness? Seems like a pretty good start. They started with a white privilege—more than what millions can claim. In this context, the argument put forth by many inside and outside the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, that award shows don’t need to reflect the overall populace accurately, seems so void. For very long, the Academy promoted a meritocracy which was completely blind to the discourse of non-white artists and to the much bigger obstacles they have had to overcome in reaching where they are.

Of the 40 actors nominated for the 87th and 88th Oscars combined, 40 were white.

To put this into perspective, Jennifer Lawrence had four Oscar nominations (and a win) before she was 25—more than a black actress has ever received in a lifetime. Of the 40 actors nominated for the 87th and 88th Oscars combined, 40 were white. In the 88-year long glorious history of Oscar winners, 88% of actors, 98% of producers, 98% of writers and 99% of actresses were white.

Changing rules

The shift away from monochrome in this year’s nominations is, therefore, refreshing. A record six black actors have been nominated: Denzel Washington, Mahershala Ali, Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, Naomie Harris, and Ruth Negga. Moreover, Dev Patel has a supporting actor nomination, Joi McMillan received the first ever editing nomination for an African-American, and four out of nine best picture nominees have non-white protagonists. The diversity in this year’s nominee slate was most probably triggered by the #OscarsSoWhite campaign last year, which apotheosised with Chris Rock’s scathing opening monologue.

Dev Patel nominated for an Oscar

Dev Patel nominated for his role in Lion | Photo Courtesy: Associate Press

But as the hashtag’s creator April Reign recently commented, one year is not indicative of a trend, and next time Oscar nominations might revert to square one.

Not just a black-white fight

Diversity is not a simple black-and-white issue. The objective is not to make the Oscars blacker, but to also represent the plethora of other demographic categories. Representation of Latino, LGBTQA, and disabled artists is negligible even in this year’s edition. Could the whiteout be a statistical glitch? A survey of the Screen Actors Guild, an American film performers’ union showed that 70% of its members are white.

If all of the Guild’s actors were equally likely to receive Oscar nominations, irrespective of race, then over 2 years, 28 out of 40 acting nominees would be white.

The probability of no person of colour nominated in an acting category in two consecutive ceremonies is infinitesimal—during a 15-year span, the chance of seeing even one back-to-back whiteout sequence is 1 in 100,000.

 A storm of stereotypes

Some egregious historical snubs apart—think Danny Glover for ‘The Colour Purple’ or Viola Davis in ‘Doubt’—there are other problems that minorities face as they navigate the dog-eat-dog world of the film business. Prominently, they do not get as many good roles, get paid less for similar contributions, and get portrayed in ways that reinforce entrenched stereotypes. Hispanics, for instance, have almost always been depicted as bandits, gangsters, and busboys, a trend which can prove to be more divisive than ever in the aftermath of an election where the winning candidate branded Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals.

Hollywood has long liked to believe that it is the melting pot of world cultures, and it is time it stepped up to the occasion.

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