By Dominic Salacki, Staff Writer
February is Black History Month, but the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite has surfaced for the second year in a row, due to the lack of diversity in the names of the actors nominated for this year’s prestigious Academy Awards. Whatever you may say on this matter, those involved in the process have been giving their two cents.
Lee's got Spikes
On Jan. 18, 2016, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, renowned activist and filmmaker Spike Lee posted a photo of the late civil rights icon on Instagram. The caption stated that Lee and his wife Tonya Lewis would not be attending the upcoming Academy Awards on Feb. 28, 2016.
“We Cannot Support It And Mean No Disrespect To My Friends, Host Chris Rock and Producer Reggie Hudlin, President Isaacs And The Academy," Lee wrote in the caption. "But, How Is It Possible For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Category Are White? And Let's Not Even Get Into The Other Branches. 40 White Actors In 2 Years And No Flava At All. We Can't Act?! WTF!!”
A trend of lacking recognition
The lack of diversity is noticeable and undeserved. The work of people of color shows passion and perseverance to break emotional and cultural barriers in filmmaking and storytelling. The films turn into worth and (sometimes) wealth, in the form of cheers and praise from their finished projects, and they have the makings of achieving world-wide recognition and even Oscar glory.
For example, the film Chi-Raq is a modern, integrated adaptation of the ancient Greek play "Lysistrata by Aristophanes," directed by Lee. Rewritten with the subject of gang violence in Chicago and with a star-studded ensemble including Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett and Wesley Snipes, this film was expected to be recognized by the Academy. Alas, only a few film award committees shined a light on Lee’s picture, including the Black Reel Awards and the African-American Film Critics Association. But just because Lee is not being recognized for Chi-Raq doesn’t mean the Academy forgot about him. This year, the Academy is giving Lee an Honorary Award, along with Debbie Reynolds and Gena Rowlands.
More Power to the Smiths
Another snubbed film from this year is Concussion starring Will Smith, who was snubbed for his tour-de-force performance as the published Nigerian-American pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu.
Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett stands next to Lee in his fight for more effort to integrate the Oscars. In a video of herself that she posted on Facebook, entitled “We must stand in our power,” she shared her own thoughts. She differed from Lee's opinion as she focused not on pushing the Oscars to have more diverse recognition, but instead directing attention and resources away from the Oscars, and toward communities and programs that allow for more acknowledgement.
Pinkett Smith, in her video, calls out to her fellow “people of color” to recognize how much power and influence their race has amassed and that asking to be invited to the Academy Awards is unnecessary.
“Have we now come to a new time and place where we recognize that we can no longer beg for the love, acknowledgment or respect of any group that maybe it’s time that we recognize that if we love, respect and acknowledge ourselves in the way in which we are asking others to do, that that is the place of true power,” Pinkett Smith said.
Pinkett Smith, in her video, discourages begging for acknowledgement, stating that it diminishes dignity and power to a group of people that already possesses these qualities.
“It is time that we pull back our resources and we put them back into our communities, into our programs,” Pinkett Smith said, “and we make programs for ourselves that acknowledge us in ways that we see fit, that are just as good as the so-called ‘mainstream ones.’”
Pinkett Smith talks along the lines of having people of color embrace their own talent and resources within their own communities, and the need for more programs like the Black Reel Awards, the African-American Film Critics Association, i.e. an award committee made by and for people of color.
“Let’s let the Academy do them with all grace and love and let’s do us differently,” Pinkett Smith said.
Pinkett Smith ended her video by praising Oscar host Chris Rock and wishing him luck even though she will not be attending or watching the ceremony.
Indeed, on one hand, Pinkett Smith is right in saying that the Academy is a well-established committee with the right to nominate whomever they want. We also must remember how “earth-shattering” it was to see two African-Americans win an Oscar in the same year: Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball (2001) and Denzel Washington for Training Day (2001). I remember how this single breakthrough felt so revolutionary to the world.
But on the other hand, it does seem a little sad that our most prestigious motion picture award show does not, at times, reflect the world in which these films were made. Pinkett Smith’s other half, Oscar nominee Will Smith, had a chance share his thoughts as well.
"I think that diversity is the American superpower, that's why we are great,” said the Concussion star in an interview with Good Morning America. “So many different people from so many different places adding their ideas, their inspiration and their influences to this beautiful American gumbo and for me, at its best, Hollywood represents and then creates the imagery for that beauty.”
Through the world of cinema, audiences around the globe are given the chance to experience cultures, locations, and aspects of life outside their everyday norm, which helps open up conversations on diversity and gives them the chance to put their value in something uniquely different, something that is revered as an internationally shared art form.
“But for my part,” Smith said, “I think I have to protect and fight for the ideals that make our country and make our Hollywood community great. So when I look at the series of nominations of the Academy, it's not reflecting that beauty."
What to do?
We should all take an example from the inspiring words of Lee and the Smith duo. We must voice our thoughts in a respectful manner on the lack of diversity while also remembering to cheer for and help promote our favorite actors of color.
Pinkett Smith’s idea of taking back resources and using them for programs that people of color would see fit is a great tactic. Counteracting the mainstream lack of diversity with award programs made for and by people of color may promote more diverse recognition worldwide. While I believe it may be a little extreme for this huge community to separate and isolate themselves from the Academy Awards altogether, maybe, like the saying goes, you’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelette.
“We recognize the very real concerns of our community,” said Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, “and I so appreciate all of you who have reached out to me in our effort to move forward together.”