According to an anonymous member of the Academy, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” had “no art to it,” people only care about it because it was directed by a Black person, and the cast’s decision to wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts at the film’s premiere in honor of Eric Garner was “offensive”: “Did they want to be known for making the best movie of the year or for stirring up shit?”1
This is what powerful Black films like Selma are up against: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), an organization that has had 87 years to figure it out — to nominate, award, and affirm the value of artists of color — and still can’t seem to get it right. As a result, over the course of nearly a century’s worth of Hollywood films, 88-99% of all Academy Award winners have been white.2
The AMPAS has a diversity problem; illuminating that problem is the first step. Demand they officially disclose their diversity numbers, and take substantive steps toward becoming a more inclusive organization.
This year, zero people of color were nominated for Oscars in any of the acting categories.
Is this the face of talent in Hollywood today?:
The AMPAS has never officially disclosed their diversity numbers. But according to a 2012 L.A. Times survey of 88% of its members, the Academy is about 94% white. On top of that, the only way to become a member is by invitation from a current member.3
Naturally, such demographics and policies result in the continued validation of white perspectives and stories, at the expense of films where Black folks are at the center of their own narratives.
When Dr. King walked into President Johnson’s office at the height of the civil rights movement — and when protestors in Selma urged Governor George Wallace to uphold the law and treat them with dignity and respect — they were dealing with men whom many Black people had no part in electing, thanks to discriminatory voting laws and policies. Films like “Selma” face a similar fate at the Oscars and in Hollywood; powerful Black art is left at the mercy of a discriminatory system of which Black folks are largely shut out.
These awards matter. Taking home an Oscar results in increased financial and creative opportunities for artists and those they employ. Just in having her film nominated for Best Picture, Ava is now one of the few — if only — consistently working Black female directors in Hollywood. But for every Ava, there are countless others who never get that chance, because we currently have an Academy that has no vested interest in seeing more Black or female-led movies succeed in Hollywood. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs has in the past stated her desire to see a more diverse Academy,4 yet this year’s Oscars will be the whitest since 1998.5 There have been no public efforts to diversify, and if there have been any attempts, they aren’t working.
At a time when our news media continues to make clear how little the lives of Black Americans matter, and our rights continue to be rolled back on a number of fronts — from voting rights to our right to organize — entrenching “Selma” in the determination, dignity, and leadership of Black folks was a powerful and important artistic decision. In Ava DuVernay, we have an artist committed to telling accurate, complex, humanizing Black stories.6 Though we look forward to seeing her upcoming film about Hurricane Katrina,7 the public snubbing and smearing of Selma still stands as an embarrassment to the Academy. But unfortunately it is more than a snub — it’s a signal that Black films must be tailored to the perspectives and experiences of whites in order to be deserving of recognition.
If we want to continue to be at the center of our own narratives, and see our stories receive the wide release they deserve, we must push for changes to the system. Tell the Academy they’ve got work to do.
Rashad, Arisha, Matt, Brandi, Dallas and the rest of the ColorOfChange team.
1. “Oscar Voter Reveals Brutally Honest Ballot: ‘There’s No Art to Selma,” ‘Boyhood’ “Uneven”,” The Hollywood Reporter 02-18-15
2. “The Diversity Gap At The Academy Awards Is As Hugely Discouraging As You’d Expect,” Huffington Post 2-24-14
3. “Oscar Voters: 94% White, 76% Male, with an Average of 63 Years Old,” The Altantic 03-02-14
4. “Academy’s president adjusts stance on diversity issue,” USA Today 01-19-15
5. “This Will Be the Whitest Oscars Since 1998,” Huffington Post 01-15-15
6. “Is Selma historically accurate?,” The Guardian 02-12-15
7. “Selma’s Ava DuVernay, David Oyelowo Teaming on Hurricane Katrina Movie,” Variety 01-26-15