If the 88th Annual Academy Awards needed a diversity reality check then everybody blew it, including Chris Rock…

Posted on March 2nd, 2016
Posted on March 2nd, 2016

by Coop Cooper

In his opening monologue at the 88 Annual Academy Awards, host Chris Rock joked that in the 50’s and 60’s blacks weren’t protesting the Oscars. He explains: “We had real things to protest at the time. They were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won ‘Best Cinematographer’. You know, when your grandmother is swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about Best Documentary or Foreign Short.” The audience – mostly white – laughed loudly and nervously. Were they supposed to laugh? Were we?

Rock’s statement has a valid point, but this is why I was hesitant about writing a piece on the Oscars this year. What was usually a big popularity contest and pat on the back for the film industry had turned into an awkward and hostile political platform for racial diversity. Of course this was brought on because the major categories were dominated by white performers/filmmakers, resulting in a boycott by some of the African American professionals in the industry. The mere threat of the boycott resulted in the Academy radically changing its voting procedure as Academy members/administrators tried to maintain their dignity while Rock openly mocked them onstage, suggesting Hollywood is guilty of ‘sorority racism’ – as in ‘we like you, but you don’t belong here’. However, there were diversity problems with the ceremony on Rock’s end, as well as the Academy in its attempt to try to look ‘cool’ and diverse in the face of accusations.

For a host attempting to shed light on diversity, it was a strange forced moment when Rock paraded out three Asian children as mock accountants of PricewaterhouseCoopers (the accounting firm that calculates the votes), to make a joke about Asians being good at math and some sort of zinger about them also putting together Rock’s cell phone, making light of child slave labor in Asia. One could easily say, “Lighten up, it was just a joke!”, but if those kids had been Hispanic, wearing sombreros and introduced as the post-awards cleanup crew, would everyone still have laughed? Preaching about diversity and anti-racism results in a credibility problem if you think making fun of Asians doesn’t count as racism. Even worse was Sacha Baron Cohen coming on stage as his dopey Ali G persona to make a crude joke about Asian skin color and genitalia (which he then compared to the Minions of “Despicable Me”).

Speaking of Asian diversity, Sumi Jo, the Korean singer of the Oscar-nominated opera song “Simple Song #3” from the movie “Youth” was not allowed to perform the song during the ceremony. However, Lady Gaga, Sam Smith and The Weeknd all performed their Oscar-nominated songs live during the telecast to much fanfare. To say this was a case of time management, popularity or even favoritism is bad enough but to deny an Asian singer, just as deserving as any of the other nominees, a chance to perform her nominated song at the ceremony is another finger in the eye of the diversity the event was trying so hard to promote. To make matters worse in the same category, Anohni, transgender singer of the Oscar-nominated song “Manta Ray”, was also denied a chance to sing at the ceremony. As a result, Anohni boycotted the show, although the media largely ignored the issue.

It has also been noted that Native American actresses Grace Dove and Melaw Nakehk’o who co-starred in “The Revenant” with Leonardo DiCaprio were not invited to the Oscars. While there was no official reason for these actresses to be included at the Oscars, putting them in seats next to DiCaprio could have helped drive the diversity (and gender!) point home. To be fair, DiCaprio’s costar Forrest Goodluck attended, but he seemed to be the lone Native American representative. Perhaps Marlon Brando didn’t leave much of an impression by sending a representative of a Native American tribe to the Oscars to accept his “The Godfather” Best Actor award to raise awareness for the plight of Native Americans.

As for the changes in Academy voting, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs made the announcement that Academy members, retired or inactive in the industry, will lose their voting rights, the idea being that the old guard doesn’t vote in favor of diversity so nullifying their votes should in theory change the demographics of future nominees. The problem with that is many retired voters are long-time champions of diversity and will now lose their voice to express it. Not to mention the fact that Sidney Poitier – the first African American to win Best Actor – hasn’t made a movie in fifteen years. Will the Academy revoke his vote as well? This decision may very well come back to haunt the Academy.

We all know diversity in Hollywood is a great thing. Nobody in their right mind believes Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington or Octavia Spencer didn’t deserve their Oscars, but diversity is more than simply black and white. Alejandro G. Iñárritu won for Best Director two years in a row and non-white directors have won that category since 2012… Nobody is talking about that, and if you aim to champion or criticize diversity in Hollywood, you better have your act together, give due process and show respect to all races, not just one or two. Both the Academy and Chris Rock failed the test this year. The Academy as a rule is politically consternated, tone-deaf, forgetful, reactionary, insensitive… and let’s face it, it always will be. However, the very liberal Academy doesn’t exactly have the worst track record with honoring diversity. In fact, it has often been a pioneer of honoring diversity, lest we forget film icons like Hattie McDaniel winning Best Supporting Actress in “Gone with the Wind” back in 1939, the first African American to ever receive an Oscar at a time when she had to sit in a segregated area of a theater to watch her own performance. I challenge Hollywood to make a movie about McDaniel’s life story. Hint: Cast Octavia Spencer. No one would be more perfect in that role.

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