It's 2020, and we're right back where we were five years ago: waiting with bated breath to see which white man (or woman) is going to take home yet another Oscar. But are we really surprised to see mostly white faces acknowledged with Hollywood's most prestigious award? Disheartened, yes. Surprised, definitely not.
The Academy Awards have enticed us into playing a game we were never meant to win, and it's time to stop.
The Oscars, airing Sunday, have been around for 90 years, and we're still not seeing great films like "Us" and "Dolemite Is My Name" or deserving actors like Jennifer Lopez and Michael B. Jordan recognized, because the Oscars were never created for anyone other than white talent to thrive. (In 1940, the year Hattie McDaniel became the first black actor to win an Academy Award, the Oscars were held in a "no blacks" hotel. After accepting her award, she was forced to sit at a segregated table, away from the rest of the "Gone With the Wind" cast.)
We're waiting for a system created by white males to recognize the beauty and significance in movies made by women and people of color. That system is powered by voters who can't relate to what a movie like "Queen & Slim" means as much as they would a "Joker" movie or a Martin Scorsese film. So the academy haphazardly nominates Cynthia Erivo for "Harriet" – in which she plays a slave. Innovative.
Of the 17 black actors who have won Academy Awards, five of them were recognized for roles that reinforce stereotypes about black people, from Cuba Gooding Jr. as an NFL player in "Jerry Maguire" to Octavia Spencer as a maid in "The Help."
But compare that to the number of Latin American and Asian American actors who have won Oscars and the stats become jarring: seven total.
"I'm so tired of it," Ava DuVernay told USA Today while promoting her OWN series "Cherish the Day," while noting that we can't ignore the Oscars entirely. "We care about it because it’s a mark of distinction around the world. ... It’s not the end-all be-all; it’s not the arbiter of good taste or achievement. It’s a lovely thing that’s a cherry on top of the work.
"I think that we, as artists, need to calibrate how much we care. We can care. But how much (do) we care?" she said. "And that calibration is going to come when the Oscars is part of a just industry and a balanced industry. Right now, it matters so much because there’s so much imbalance."
It should come as a surprise to no one that Hollywood is run by (old) white men. It's been this way since the film industry's conception more than 100 years ago, and it's this way today. Of the five major movie studios, only one is headed by a woman, Universal chairwoman Donna Langley, and she's white.
Yes, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made strenuous moves to diversify its membership since #OscarsSoWhite went viral on social media (the percentage of members of color has doubled since 2015, from 8% to 16%). New research shows casting of women and members of marginalized communities as leads and co-leads is at an all-time high (31 of the 100 top-grossing films of 2019).
“Yet there is also a very obvious disconnect between what sells tickets and what garners awards, (and that) points to a systemic bias at cultural institutions like the BAFTAs or the Academy Awards," wrote Stacy L. Smith, founder of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, in recent report findings.
Failure to recognize diverse voices isn't just an Oscars problem; it's prevalent everywhere. It's the very fabric the United States was built on, and we can either continue waiting on awards shows to give us our much-delayed validation or turn to our own communities.
Solange Knowles put it eloquently in a tweet in which she criticized the Recording Academy's track record on diversity after Beyoncé was snubbed for album of the year ("Lemonade") at the Grammy Awards in 2017.
"Create your own committees, build your own institutions, give your friends awards, award yourself, and be the gold you wanna hold my g's," she tweeted.
Even recently ousted Recording Academy CEO Deborah Dugan alleged the "Grammys process is ripe with corruption" and claimed a "secret committee" decides who gets nominations, favoring artists they have business and personal relationships with.
Exclusion from predominately white institutions is nothing new. We just didn't expect it would continue into the 2020s. This is why historically black universities were erected, why there are conferences dedicated to Asian American journalists and why places of employment form resource groups catering to marginalized communities.
We give so much power to the academy's validation of our work. We already know Viola Davis is a talented actress, and films like "If Beale Street Could Talk" are groundbreaking. Although we certainly don't need the academy's recognition to validate that, being acknowledged by a prestigious Hollywood institution shows us that we are seen.
When "Get Out" received four Oscars nominations (and won one), it signified that we were all finally on the same page: That Hollywood sees black actors and black stories as worthy of more than despondent slave movies.
In the words of Issa Rae at the 2017 Emmys, "I'm rooting for everybody black," because when one of us wins, we all win.
But what would happen if we simply stopped paying it much attention and focused that energy on the BET Awards and film festivals that support and encourage diverse voices? Our energy is powerful and valuable, and if it wasn't, our culture wouldn't continue to be appropriated in music, hair and language.
If history is any indicator, surely, if we start giving the BETs as much weight as the Oscars, in due time, the masses will follow. Because cultural appropriation seems to always follow black pop culture. Perhaps we should share director Bong Joon Ho's perspective of the Oscars.
"It’s a little strange, but it’s not a big deal,” Bong told Vulture about being the first Korean film nominated for best picture (though none of the film's stars received acting nominations). “The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.”
Kelly Lawler, Andrea Mandell and Bryan Alexander contributed to this report.