When April Reign, former entertainment attorney and managing editor of BroadwayBlack.com, created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in early 2015, it seemed Hollywood had all but forgotten about the diverse human fabric that truly made “America great.” Box-office draws Will Smith and Idris Elba were snubbed for a nomination in 2016 for what many thought was some of their finest work. Watching the Oscars award shows the last few years left one wondering if Black directors, screenwriters or cinematographers even existed. Black American filmmakers became determined to prove they existed and were producing work worthy of recognition. Jada Pinkett Smith took to YouTube to voice her displeasure with not only the homogenized offering of the 2016 Oscars, but also the snubbing of her husband, Will Smith, for his leading role in Concussion, a true story based upon a case that changed the way the National Football League managed concussions.
The 2017 Oscar announcements are in stark contrast to any year before. Six of the 20 nominated performers are Black. Three of those are in the Best Performing Actress category: Viola Davis (Fences), Naomie Harris (Moonlight), and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures). Denzel Washington is nominated for Best Actor (Fences). Mahershala Ali is nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Moonlight) and Ruth Negga’s role as Mildred Loving in the film Loving garnered her a nod for Best Supporting Actress.
The Academy was fortunate to have an African American woman, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, as president when it was forced to take a hard look at its diversity problems. After a heartfelt apology during the 2016 broadcast for its lack of diversity, Isaacs explained that the board had fast-tracked plans to make its membership more diverse. In an interview with the LA Times, Isaacs said, “It’s the right thing to do. We’ve been a more than predominately White institution for a long time. We thought, we’ve got to change this and reflect the community better.”
To its credit, under Boone Isaacs’ leadership, the Academy’s board had been making incremental changes for nearly three years. But, the situation reached critical mass and the board was faced with a boycott of the Feb. 28, 2016, broadcast. Boone Isaacs and the board met and agreed that setting goals to double the number of women and minorities, with memberships of women being increased to 48 percent and diverse groups to more than 14 percent, was appropriate.
In 2016, the Academy passed a series of measures designed to include an appropriate segment of the filmmaking industry’s demographics. Included in these measures, new members must remain active for 10 years and the membership will be renewed if they are active in motion pictures during that decade. Those who do not qualify for active status will be moved to emeritus status, enjoying all the privileges of membership except voting. Lifetime voting rights are granted after three 10-year terms or if they have been nominated for or won an Academy Award.
Taking normal attrition into consideration, Boone Isaacs also stated, “Our goal is to make our voting body reflective of filmmaking professionals who are active today.”
#OscarsSoWhite’s April Reign was pleased with the changes the Academy made regarding membership — and that it did so swiftly and unanimously, “… but we still need to pressure Hollywood studio heads to make more inclusive and diverse films, because the academy can only nominate quality work that has been made.”
After receiving her letter last year from the Academy detailing the changes, Selma director Ava DuVernay tweeted, “Shame is a helluva motivator.”
The board’s changes affected Black film technician nominations as well. Bradford Young’s nomination for best cinematographer for his work on Arrival makes him only the second African American to have that honor. Young will also be the cinematographer on the upcoming Han Solo. Kimberly Steward is only the second Black woman to get the Best Producer nod for her work on Manchester by the Sea. Steward financed her $8M Amazon film solely through her company, K Period. “We’re breaking new ground,” Steward recently told Vanity Fair after the nomination announcement.
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight earned him nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, which he shares with playwright Tarrell Alvin McCraney. Fences playwright August Wilson is nominated for Best Screenplay posthumously. The Academy has seemingly heard the call of the masses and acknowledged that there is real interest from all demographics for stories about people of color that don’t focus on oppression, slavery, and inescapable poverty. Hidden Figures’ U.S. box-office gross to date is north of $140M.
The biggest surprises are the nominees in the documentary category: four of five films are by Black filmmakers. Roger Ross Smith (Life, Animated), Exra Edelman (O.J.: Made in America), Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro) and Ava DuVernay’s 13th. Williams won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 2010. From James Baldwin to this country’s mass incarceration of Black men, these documentaries all have one component in common and that is excellent stories. Some may ask why that’s important. Like any other method of delivery, cinematic stories reflect who we are as a people, as a race, and as Americans working in a society that has yet to come to grips with our coexistence. These are stories that inspire.
Reel talk with #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign
Last year, you stated that you were encouraged by the swift actions of the Academy’s board. What were your first thoughts when this year’s nominees were announced?
Having 687 new members of the Academy, which was its largest and most diverse class ever, was encouraging. But, we must not forget that the voting body remains 89 percent White and 73 percent male and the average age is in the early 60s. While this was a good start and I am encouraged, I’m just not sure we can say that based on the demographics that the increase in nominations is due to the changes the Academy made in regard to voting members. I think this year’s nominations were the result of quality performances and exemplary work behind the camera being recognized by their peers.
Four of five Oscar-nominated documentaries were made by Black filmmakers. How significant is this? Will this have any affect on diverse drama films by African American filmmakers in the future?
No, simply because these are two different genres. This is the first time we have had so many stories in the documentary category that reflect the Black experience. And, that just goes to show that there are a myriad of stories that not only can be told, but should be told. But this is reflective of the larger filmmaking community: there are stories that should have a fair chance to be told.
Kimberly Steward solely financed Manchester by the Sea through her company, K Period. Have you seen an increase in investor interest in films created by people of color?
Yes, Brad Pitt’s Plan B Productions was involved with the production of Moonlight. There definitely has been an increase in interest from majority groups as well as studios. Macro Ventures, a black-owned company, brought us Fences. We are seeing an influx in cash and support for films that represent a traditionally underrepresented community.
The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag went viral almost instantly. It was inspirational because it demonstrated not only the power of Black Twitter but also the power of a 140-character communication method. What advice would you give current movements combating injustices?
Anyone, a movement or an individual, that has passion about a particular issue has to be committed to making a change to that issue. Twitter is just one media platform of many. It does lend itself well to respecting issues regarding social justice or #BlackLivesMatter or whatever the case may be. So, ensuring that the message is easily understood and consistent are two goods ways to help your message get across to the masses.
The year is 2018. What do you foresee in regard to the American movie industry and films by and for African Americans?
All of the films that were nominated this year were in production or pre-production before the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was created. What we are seeing now is that studios are realizing that it is no longer risky to bank on underrepresented communities. Hidden Figures has now grossed over $130M and is the highest grossing Oscar-nominated film ever in the Best Film category. It was also No. 1 at the box office for two weeks in a row when it was first released. What that tells studios is that people of color, and Black women specifically, can open a film strongly and that more of these films and those of other marginalized communities should be made. To be clear, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was never just about Black people or race. It was also about gender, sexual orientation, and physically disabled communities — everyone who has traditionally been underrepresented. We still have a long way to go. For example, to date, the Academy has only had four women nominated as Best Director. There is still a lot that has to be done. Movies that reflect the audience and theatergoers are desired and needed and should be supported from production to distribution.