Founded in 1927, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards several hundred awards for performances and technical achievements every year. It was not until 1939 that a black actor, Hattie McDaniel, would win the award for Best Supporting Actress, and another person of color wouldn’t win an Oscar for another 17 years — Asian-American cinematographer James Wong Howe for “The Rose Tattoo.” To this day, the Academy continually underrepresents every category of American identity other than white.
That could be because Hollywood does such a good job of ignoring roles for people of color. A study conducted by the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California found that minorities represented a little over 28 percent of the speaking characters in 414 films, television and digital episodes in 2014 and 2015. Roles without race specification often go to white actors because in Hollywood, as in most of the country, white is the default assumption. Out of the 20 major acting nominations the Oscars awards every year, every one went to a white actor or actress this year. However, the shock value of these numbers is reduced once we analyze the makeup of the academy and those who hold voter memberships: Its member database is roughly 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male.
Even the #OscarsSoWhite media campaign and the notion that actors of color should boycott the Oscars this year were met with contempt and managed to divide the black acting community in Hollywood.
It’s also important to analyze what those who do win, win these awards for. In the past few years, three black women have won the award for Best Supporting Actress in a film: Mo’Nique in “Precious,” Octavia Spencer in “The Help” and Lupita Nyong’o in “12 Years a Slave.” All of these films centered around blackness, and the roles these women won for were steeped in the black experience: in the case of these movies, the poor, turbulent experience, the pre–civil rights experience or the enslaved experience.
The stories and narratives are incredibly important; however, people of color within the academy make no waves or movement unless their roles center around their color. They are not allowed to tell universal stories, and in this way, we force black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American and other actors into boxes. Until we allow spaces for people of color to portray and represent a vast number of narratives, we are crippling the ability of American media to touch lives and create effective change. More importantly, we are teaching a very narrow view to the unsuspecting and susceptible consumers of that media.