HOLLYWOOD'S BLIND SPOT
The absence of black nominees or nominees of color in the major categories in this year's Oscar competition is not simply an indictment of the Academy, which is overwhelmingly white and male - this is also an indictment of the hiring practices and business and marketing decisions of Hollywood itself. A business that has a customer base that is 46% non-white, domestically, marketing itself to a world in which more than two thirds of the movie going audiences are people of color, and yet its chief executives, marketing execs, top performers, producers, directors, writers, cinematographers, editors, lighting designers, costume designers, production designers, production managers, carpenters, electricians, art directors and sound engineers remain nearly as largely white and male in 2016 as they were in 1936.
The Writers Guild, the Directors Guild, SAG-AFTRA and the Producers Guild have all looked at their membership rolls and the employment figures and complained about the lack of diversity, all have pledged themselves to try to do better in terms of increasing non-white membership, better to reflect the audiences they seek to serve and some progress has been made. But, while the incremental changes move incrementally, the embarrassments continue, and the reactions of chagrin and sometimes even shame grow, ebb and subside until the next egregious oversight occurs.
It would be nice to think that there will be substantial soul-searching in Hollywood in the face of these complaints, the backlash in the twitter-verse and across social media, as well as the headlines in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter and the newspaper headlines around the country, all highlighting Hollywood's glaring failure. But, there won't be. Beyond a few cosmetic changes here and there, nothing will really change, either in the Academy or in the Industry itself, because so much in the entertainment industry is about more than simple dollars and cents. The status quo works, and has worked for a long time, many feel, so why change now?
Another reason is the very nature of show business culture itself. Things happen through personal contacts and relationships, some new, others long-standing, but all based on familiarity, shared interests, kids who go to the same schools, membership in the same clubs, being alums of the same college programs, gym membership, hanging out in the same restaurants. competition in business, having the same agents, managers, sharing the same politics, reading the same books, running in the same social circles. People always drift to what is the most comfortable, the most familiar. Change can be disconcerting, uncertain and sometimes destabilizing. Therefore, let's avoid it. Let's not upset the status quo; let's not make things too difficult for ourselves, and our thinking.
It is possible for persons to engage in all of the interpersonal relationships cited above and never, or perhaps rarely, have to interact with anyone who is outside of their race or ethnicity. Asians, Blacks, Latinos or Pacific Islanders can do so just as easily as whites, and have. The big problem is, the money and influence that can have the most profound influence on careers, hence personal income and lives, resides in those closed circles that white people occupy. Consequently, it is the tastes, ideas, predilections, CHOICES that white artists, creators and executives make that carry the "weight." The other people, the non-white people, who also occupy and contribute to that cultural space are left out and often find themselves scrambling against each other to gain what little sunlight is left beyond the shade the Great White Shadow has cast.
Hollywood is actually content to have all the attention (blame) placed on the shoulders of the Academy Awards and its voters. but the real culprits are sitting in boardrooms, CEOs offices, executive suites, writers rooms, and power meetings involving directors, producers and casting agents because those are the places where the decisions are made concerning which projects will be greenlit and who will be hired and who will not be. It is in those offices and those meetings where the future membership of the Academy will be determined. And those decisions will not begin to be affected until the bodies that occupy those offices begin to change themselves. Until qualified people of color occupy those offices and positions of authority, behind the camera as well as in front, substantial change will be as difficult to accomplish in Hollywood as it has been everywhere else in American society.
Hollywood is an Equal Opportunity employer and has been since the Civil Rights era, meaning it has, by and large, supported Civil Rights, the Voting Rights Bill, Gay Rights, Women's Rights, Workers Rights, Human rights -- yet look where we are.
The change that is needed is not just within the Academy. The change that we should seek is Systemic. This is not about one institution; it is about a System that is, at its core, unfair and has been for a very long time.