I have had this fairy tale relationship with the Oscars. Since I was a young boy growing up in the mountains of North India, the idea of Hollywood and celebrities walking onto the stage to accept this stunning statuette in gold was my childhood dream. All I could do was stand in front of the mirror practicing my acceptance speech and fawn over the beautiful stars who made it to the red carpet. I have never missed (thus far) a live Oscar event in the past two decades. Often times I would be driving down to the wire, to get home so that I could catch the awards show.
Fast forward two decades and I find myself a stone’s throw away from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. I also have the impassioned privilege to be dabbling in cinema myself, so the odds of an Oscar win have definitely improved for me. I continue to deny the naysayers who have banished the Oscars to the confines of studio greed, box office pundits and what not. The childhood dream thrives, so when the nominations for this year’s Oscars were announced this past week, I was curiously glued to my phone streaming the live coverage of the announcement.
I am not going to venture into evaluating the merits of the nominees, their work or if they deserved to be nominated. What I, like many others, was struck by was the continued whiteness of it all. In my reading of people’s responses to the nominations this year, I read somewhere that since 1929 (when the awards first started) of the 3000 odd winners, less than 50 have been non-white. This was like a wow moment for me. 1.6% in the 88 years of Oscar history!! I had to take a minute to really let that sink in.
After the moment of shock had passed, I sat wondering if the blame had to be placed at the Academy’s doorstep for Mr. Oscar WHITE? Should the members be voting based on who they are and what they deem “talent” or ensure equal representation of people of color, LGBTQ people, even women and the like? Is nominating more non-white people the answer?
I did some more research, dug around through numbers and figures, and while I don’t disagree that nominating a diverse group of people would be the natural progression towards proper representation of people contributing to the arts, but the problem is deeper, far deeper. There are the obvious indicators of studios hiring stars that are ‘bankable’; most of them end up being white heterosexual men. Some white heterosexual women fall within this category too thankfully, but in the 88 years of Oscar only one woman has ever won the Best Director prize. And then there are other factors that come into play: casting directors and producers put their money where there is assured box-office return and cinemas screen films that have markets and audiences. But in all of this I feel the most influential player seems left behind.
I was looking at the numbers and the top ten films that made over $200 million in 2015 had white heterosexual (as far as we know) stars in them. Inside Out was an animation, so maybe one exception. But what does this tell us?
Audience tastes have changed over the past fifty years and we have matured as people in our choices in popular culture. But when it comes to the movies, all of us still seem to flock to the same types over and over again. The mainstream ones include action, fantasy fiction, comedy, some drama, most of which are driven by heterosexual white actors (gender neutral). How can we change that? How can we as an audience body, that drives choices made my studios, casting directors, producers, and even cinema owners make some sort of an impact? I will make it sound simple, but I think it is. I don’t see institutionalized racism going away anytime soon, but what we can do is spend the ten dollars that we do at a cinema every week or a few times a month in a manner that gives us access to a larger pool of talent, a larger variety of stories and, yes, non-mainstream, non-white actors.
As an artist I will acknowledge that the platforms for artists have increased, are more frequent and also more malleable. However, what we do lack is the most important resource that will allow us to expand as artists and take our work to a larger audience. That is funding, money, financial backing, call it what you may. And no matter how inconsequential it may seem, every penny spent on watching a film contributes to what gets made and who ends up acting in them.
A recurrent theme at the Oscars for the past few years has been equal pay for women. I couldn’t agree more, but to add to that list should be more women directors (it’s a dismal 8% in mainstream films), a break in the stereotyping of non-white, non hetero-normative characters, and exploration of stories that are not recycled sequels or touting the same ‘saleable’ themes.
I may have moved five oceans closer to the Dolby Theatre, hoping that my childhood dream of holding Mr. Oscar in my arms some day would become a reality. I just hope I don’t end up taking Mr. Oscar WHITE home instead.
To see the list of Oscar nominees, click HERE. The Oscars take place February 28.