Ever since the Academy Award nominations were announced on 14 January, much of Hollywood and those further afield have been up in arms over concerns about a lack of racial minorities in the movie industry and at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose members for the second consecutive year nominated no actors of colour. The announcement has drawn fire from social media users with the hashtag #WhiteOscars becoming prevalent and some stars have announced they will not be attending the ceremony.
"I don't think the right side is boycotting the Oscars," explained Gil Robertson, president and co-founder of the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA). "I think the Oscars is a well-respected institution in the entertainment community that does a lot of good work for a lot of people and I think under its current leadership with Cheryl Boone Isaacs and Dawn Hudson that they are firmly committed to really employing programmes and initiatives that will bring about change that will increase diversity and bring about change within the Academy."
Stephen Galloway, the executive features editor at The Hollywood Reporter, agrees with Robertson about attacks on the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
"The Academy is 'the' establishment, it's the most visible representation of the film business, but it is not the film business," said Galloway at the magazine's office. "The studios, the financiers, the distribution machines, that is the film business and they're making the decisions about which movies are actually made. The root of the problem is that the studios are simply not greenlighting films that are led by minority performers to a significant degree that it actually reflects this country and its make-up and that has to change."
'You don't see a reflection of the world'
So what is the problem? Robertson's perspective is that it's a lack of diversity in the studio system. "You can walk across the campuses of all the studios and never really see anyone of colour and it's something that the industry needs to correct. Film is a reflection of the world we live in but when you walk across a studio lot, you don't see a reflection of the world, you don't see those people," he explained.
However, Galloway believes diversity needs to start at the top, saying: "It's the bastions of power that must change and you're talking about a handful of studios each one of which is run by a middle-aged white man and sometimes a woman. If they are not pressured to make hiring choices that reflect diversity, the problem is going to be repeated year in, year out, year in, year out."
Director Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett Smith have spoken out on social media about their grievances at this year's selection. However, both Robertson and Galloway believe the choice was not done for racist reasons.
"There is no active racism," stated Galloway. "Is there a covert racism? Possibly. And it's the covert racism of 'I veer towards people who look like me'. If you said to one of the 6,200 Academy members who gets to vote 'Did you like Straight Outta Compton?' 'Well I kind of liked this other film more because I could identify with it.' Is that covert racism? Is it narrowmindedness or is it just the way human beings are?"
"I think there are racial insensitivities. I mean, we're all human, things happen," said Robertson. "But I think there are more reasonable explanations about why the studios go about their business in the way that they do and it's based on proven models, much like real estate."
Citing films by Eddie Murphy, Will Smith and Denzel Washington, Galloway said: "Time and again, there's been proof that this conventional wisdom in Hollywood is wrong, that conventional wisdom that black films don't travel. Yes they do. There's no international star bigger than Will Smith. Of course, they do, if they're entertaining, if they're different, if they're imaginative. This is a completely specious notion that is blocking many of the people who are making films and buying them."
Over the past two decades, the race issue has dogged the Academy Awards. However, as Galloway points out, perhaps the end is in sight. He said: "Look at the latest Star Wars. It has a white actress, a black actor and a hispanic actor – those are the three leads, right? There's something a little mechanical when you set about it like that but at least they're heading in the right direction and other films must follow and will if they want to capture those audiences."