Editor’s Note: On Feb. 22, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will host the 87th Annual Academy Awards. But with Twitter hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite gaining more and more popularity, many in the movie industry are concerned about the lack of diversity in the awards show. Voicewaves youth reporter, Deonna Anderson, spoke with diverse artists, actors and filmmakers from Long Beach about the Oscars, the lack diversity in the film industry, and opportunities for change.
Last year’s Academy Awards saw a number of nominations going to actors of color, mostly for the film Twelve Years a Slave, which won Best Picture. For many, it was an encouraging sign the Academy was finally beginning to shed its lily-white hue.
But this year, not so much. Not one person of color was nominated for an award in the four acting categories, nor were there any in the category for Best Director, despite some hope that Selma director Ava DuVernay would be nominated.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (The Academy), which is the body that votes for Oscar nominees, is notorious for being a largely white male affair.
Long Beach-based Thai-American actor and educator June Kaewsith says for this reason, she doesn’t even watch the awards.
“I stopped paying too much attention to the Oscars, because I know it doesn’t represent the majority of America,” Kaewsith said. “That space has never represented us in the first place, [so] to even strive for recognition from people who don’t represent us is, for me, counterproductive.”
Pamela K. Johnson, a local Black writer, editor and filmmaker, said she was also dissatisfied with the Academy’s myopia when it comes to race.
“It’s frustrating and I am not quite clear when it’s going to change,” said the Arts Council for Long Beach Professional Arts Fellow. “For the [Academy] to say this is the best we have in the United States and for the message to come across like, ‘This is America,’ it’s just not true.”
Johnson adds that in a city as diverse as Long Beach, the conversation goes well beyond black and white.
“People are talking in terms of black and white but Asians are not represented, Latinos are not represented, Native Americans are not represented,” said Johnson.
One of the roots of the problem, she explains, is a lack of diversity in casting.
“There are not many actors or actresses of color who are being offered those plumb roles,” she said. “You have to be in a film that is of a high caliber for your performance to count. If you do a great performance in some ‘hoody’ picture, the Academy is not even going to see it.”
There are numerous reasons why people of color are not casted in studio-backed films. Johnson said that chief among those reasons is the fact that movies are expensive to make.
“[Filmmakers] are like: ‘If I’m making a $100 million film, I’m putting in it not only who I want, but also who I can recoup my money with.’” According to Johnson, there is a notion in the film industry that movies starring Denzel Washington will make less money than a film with Matt Damon. “There is a whole structure as to who gets cast in what. It isn’t as simple as we think,” she added.
In August of 2014, the Academy re-elected its president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an African American woman. After taking office in 2013, Isaacs said, “There are different voices that need to be heard — and there are audiences for these different voices. We at the Academy want to be a place where these voices can be recognized.”
This was a signal to some that the business was changing how it related to diversity.
But Adanna Kenlow, a Long Beach-based Black actor who teaches drama at the Manazar Gamboa Theater, said more is required from the Academy than promises from its president.
“I think there should be an effort to enforce diversity in the Academy,” said Kenlow. “One of my favorite proverbs is, ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.'”
Johnson agrees that more needs to be done to encourage diversity at the Academy, but she also acknowledges the desire for recognition common to all artists regardless of who they are and where they come from.
“I think it’s natural to want to be acknowledged and to want to measure up, but at the same time, we don’t control that. We can’t go in there and kick the person out of the driver’s seat,” Johnson said. “Because The Academy is so respected, because it is the pinnacle of Hollywood and its recognition of the best performances of the year, you can’t just shove it off and not care.”
When critical acclaim is not the goal, people are creating their own spaces, which Kaewsith is happy to support.
“There’s so many independent film festivals that our communities have created and I just feel like, if anything, folks should get exposed to these alternative spaces,” said Kaewsith, who is involved with the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. “The purpose of the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival is to show our community that we have the power to tell our own narratives through film.”
For Kenlow, such venues do not get the attention they deserve. “If you want to find out who the best Pacific Islander filmmakers and actors are, you have to really do some research,” Kenlow said. “I think there has to be a way to make these things more important, more high profile.”
Whether or not the Academy chooses to recognize people of color in the industry, artists like Kaeswith are still holding power in their own hands.
“My goal as an artist is to create a ripple effect for storytellers to emerge, weave threads of commonalities of the human condition, and challenge the presumptions or stereotypes others have of us,” she said.