Oscars So White, Again: When Will They See Us?

Another year, another whitewashing of the nomination field

Members of the cast and crew of ‘Hustlers’ at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

WWhen our world becomes too much to bear, art has always been the default that many people turn to. Whether for distraction, entertainment, or enlightenment, art—and good art, at that—provokes emotion. A brilliant film, TV series, or Netflix binge can bring groups of people together in conversation. Through that conversation, sometimes our spirits click and our humanity becomes more connected, more understanding, and maybe, in the most remarkable cases, a bit more open to others who don’t look like us, love like us, or pray like us.

Diverse storytelling has the ability to shift hearts and minds in a way that our politics often cannot. So, what does it mean that yet again, as the awards season comes barreling in, it does so absent any diversity? A few years ago, activist April Reign created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite to highlight how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences consistently overlooks films created by people of color. After Reign’s hashtag went viral, changes were made to rules of the academy, which at that time was largely a body of sexagenarian White men. With such a bounty of films and documentaries created over the past year by women and people of color, you would think there would be absolutely no way that entire categories at this year’s Oscars would be all White and all male; but you would be sadly mistaken.

The reality is that women, people of color, and folks from marginalized communities have indeed been speaking and creating magnificent and vivid stories of perseverance, love, justice, and loss.

For the second year in a row, not one woman was nominated for Best Director. Directors Lorena Scafaria and Greta Gerwig were glaring omissions from the Best Director category for their films, Hustlers and Little Women, respectively. Acclaimed director Ava DuVernay, who finally got to take the stage at the Critics’ Choice Awards for her brilliant Netflix series When They See Us, was completely shut out of the Golden Globes and the Oscars. In her acceptance speech this week, DuVernay said to a standing room, “The late poet Audre Lorde told us exactly what to do at times like this. She said, ‘When we speak, we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So, it is better to speak.’”

The reality is that women, people of color, and folks from marginalized communities have indeed been speaking and creating magnificent and vivid stories of perseverance, love, justice, and loss. Yet, while our work is indeed exceptional, in many cases the contributions and talents on display by non-White people are left unnoticed, as if to say that our lived experiences don’t matter and/or won’t resonate with people who don’t look like us. What’s worse is that Hollywood very much mirrors Washington, D.C., in this way. Whether unconscious or conscious, the result is the same: to make people of color and women, in this particular instance, invisible.

WWhat happens when you don’t see yourself reflected on screen or at the ballot box? You begin to believe that you don’t matter, and the White mainstream begins to believe that your community has nothing of merit to offer — creating in many ways a White supremacist patriarchal feedback loop.

From our politics to our entertainment, the gatekeepers all look the same. They are old, they are White, and largely men. So is it any surprise that films and shows that do not center the experiences around White men are largely overlooked? What’s most troubling, though, is that these same gatekeepers will uplift a “slave narrative,” as if that is the only way Black people can ever be portrayed. Whenever we are shown in all our power or brilliance, somehow we are snubbed. The same bodes true for women.

Take the film Hustlers, for instance, which boasted a diverse cast of badass women: Jennifer Lopez, KeKe Palmer, Constance Wu, and Lili Reinhart, to name a few. The story was rich and layered about how the economic crash of the early aughts affected not only Wall Street and our 401(k) accounts but also the stripping industry. The film showed us what a determined group of women would do to hold onto economic independence. It’s a bold story with incredible acting, and yet it received not one nod.

In Hustlers, the final line of Jennifer Lopez’s character, Ramona, stated in no uncertain terms a perspective on the world that cut deep: “It’s all a strip club. You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” In politics as well as in Hollywood, there are people green-lighting films, series, or pieces of legislation and others doing the tap dance to be seen, to be heard, to matter. In this fresh new decade, we have taken the old battles yet to be won with us. Maybe this time around, it will be up to the people to opt out of awards that are not reflective of the diverse and complex world we live in. Just as in our politics, if we continue to accept the status quo, a shift will never occur.

Awards are nice, but without the importance placed on the pageantry of it all, maybe they will cease to matter. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” It’s possible that we can do away with systems that no longer serve us. Much like we have started important conversations about how obsolete and inherently racist the electoral college is—especially after the 2016 election, where Secretary Hillary Clinton won 3 million more votes than Donald Trump but still lost the election—we need to have conversations about obsolete systems that should now be removed. It’s possible for us to imagine disrupting Hollywood in the same way that our democracy needs to be disrupted.

All of this comes down to what “we the people” decide we want to tolerate. Is it okay with us that straight White men continue to run roughshod over every industry, from tech to entertainment to politics? Is it okay that the only stories being told, whether on screen or in our children’s textbooks, uphold a White supremacist and patriarchal narrative? We have more power than we know. When will they see us? When we refuse in no uncertain terms to go unseen. Instead of waiting to be recognized by an antiquated system, we need to choose to honor our diverse brilliance on our own terms — celebrations that are for us and by us. Why fit in when you can stand out?

is the host of #WokeAF & #PMMood & co-host of the podcast #democracyish. She covers all the news and happenings at the intersection of politics and pop culture.