The “All-White” Oscars Stimulate a Productive Conversation
The best speech delivered at the 2016 Academy Award ceremony was by Cheryl Boone Issacs, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) Board of Governors.
Toward the end of the show, without offering specifics, she promised that things would be changing. She sincerely celebrated everyone who was nominated for their work in the past year and said, “tonight is also a time to talk about the future. The Oscars celebrate the storytellers who have the opportunity to work in the powerful medium of film and with that opportunity comes responsibility.”
The “All-White” nominee phenomenon has stimulated passionate responses within the Academy. From certain African American actors boycotting the award ceremony to others making claims of blatant racism within the industry, anger and outrage has been flaring. With Chris Rock as the host, all eyes were nervously anticipating his opening monologue – how hard hitting would he be? What’s his take? As a white person, will I feel “entitlement” guilt? Will Chris Rock fall on his face and bomb? [See Chris Rock’s monologue here.]
Chris Rock did not hold back but he also did not leave his audience feeling hopeless against the entrenched racism in the film industry. There was no denying the elephant in the room or soft stepping around it. He hit the audience between the eyes, expressing his view that racism exists in Hollywood but it’s not “burning-cross racist,” or “fetch-me-some-lemonade racist.” He likened Hollywood to being “sorority-racist…we like you Rhonda but you’re not a Kappa.”
With millions of people tuning in, Chris Rock tasked himself to bring clarity to a complex and emotional issue. By demarcating different types of racism, he could highlight the more insidious, subtle type that excludes people because they’re from a different group. He was provocative without inducing widespread guilt. First and foremost, he is a comedian and he made the audience laugh while they were being educated. Laughter is a welcome lubricant while digesting a repugnant truth. The after-taste lingers, as it should.
Cheryl Boone Issacs created a framework toward a solution. With a clear and confident delivery style, she called on each member of the audience and the academy to take action. Here are her words:
“Our audiences are global and rich in diversity and every facet of our industry should be as well. Everyone in the Hollywood community has a role to play in bringing about the vital changes the industry needs so that we can accurately reflect the world today. The Academy Board of Governors recently took concrete actions and sent a message that inclusion only serves to make us all stronger. And it’s important that the members of the academy and everyone in this room help deliver that message. Each of you is an ambassador who can influence others in this industry. It’s not enough to just listen and agree. We must take action. While change is often difficult it is necessary. Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’ I am confident that together we can shape a future in which all of us can be proud.” [See Cheryl’s speech at The Verge, click here]
Solutions for deep seated, subtle forms of racism do not easily come forth but the awards show made the best of an uncomfortable and untenable situation by creating a lively conversation on stage in front of millions of people worldwide. In addition to Boone Issac’s call to action, the governing board made changes to the voting rules for future Academy Awards. It is not enough to have a conversation; the systemic structure of the organization can address root causes and help usher in change. The AMPAS is in strong and capable hands with Cheryl Boone Issacs. Maybe next year they will address the inherent sexism in the industry and reach out to other minorities who are less advantaged than African Americans’. There is hope that change can happen.