Is a boycott the solution to #OscarsSoWhite?

Last week when the nominations for the 2016 Academy Awards were publicly announced, I felt a deep swell of disappointment when I saw Creed missing from almost all of the categories. The only nomination it received was that of Best Supporting Actor — for Sylvester Stallone.

Canadians feel similarly excluded, but calls for a separate award show meet resistance

Oscar nominees are shown in this combination of file photos. The Oscar acting nominees announced on Thursday lacked black performers for a second straight year, leading to the revival of the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite that emerged in 2015. (Reuters)

After watching Creed, I left the movie theatre on a natural high that took me several hours to come down from. I spent the next week reading every article on the film, tweeting about various reflections it inspired, downloading the soundtrack and going to the gym for five days straight (a definite anomaly from my usual routine) with the music from the movie blasting in my headphones. I saw it again the following week with a crew of homegirls and then again the next month with my mum.

For black Canadian [filmmakers], it's almost like we have no place anywhere.- Alicia Bunyan-Sampson, Toronto-based filmmaker

So last week when the nominations for the 2016 Academy Awards were publicly announced, I felt a deep swell of disappointment when I saw it missing from almost all of the categories. The only nomination it received was that of Best Supporting Actor — for Sylvester Stallone.

In 2015, April Reign created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite as a response to the continued lack of diverse nominees. Soon after the 2016 announcements were made, the hashtag was trending for the second year running. Then and now, in four acting categories, not one person of colour was nominated. This time, #OscarsSoWhite spawned the offshoot #OscarsStillSoWhite, as well as #BlackTwitterAwards, an attempt to celebrate films that had been ignored. 

There were a few nominees of colour. Among them: Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Best Director for The Revenant), What Happened Miss Simone? (Best Documentary Feature), The Weeknd (Best Original Song) and Sanjay Patel (Best Animated Short for Sanjay's Super Team).

In 2012, a study by the Los Angeles Times revealed that among the 5,765 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Oscar voters are nearly 94 per cent white and 77 per cent male. Black people make up 2 per cent of the Academy and Latino people are less than 2 per cent.  Oscar voters have a median age of 62 and people younger than 50 constitute just 14 per cent of the membership. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs has stated that the academy has worked to invite more diverse groups of members to join over the last three years.

Celebrities were among those who took to social media to voice their disappointment. Actress Jada Pinkett Smith suggested that black actors, directors and other members of Hollywood shouldn't participate as presenters and performers, producer Will Packer wrote an open letter on Facebook calling for the industry to do better and director Spike Lee announced on Instagram that he would not be attending the ceremony in protest.

Here in the North, I observed filmmakers of colour also express fatigue, disappointment and outrage. Filmmaker and founder of Caribbean Tales International Film Festival Frances-Anne Solomon wrote:

I spoke with Alicia Bunyan-Sampson, an emerging filmmaker based in Toronto, about the impact of Oscar nominations on creatives of colour living in Canada:

"The Oscars, that's the goal. That's what you work towards. I'm living in Canada, in a space where it's so difficult as a black person to work in the industry, because the industry almost doesn't exist, and then looking at America, which is the goal, you feel like, 'Well, I won't be acknowledged there either.' So for black Canadians, it's almost like we have no place anywhere."

It is this frustration with a consistent lack of recognition that led award-winning director Randall "RT" Thorne to argue that filmmakers of colour should stop looking to spaces such as the Oscars for validation. He tweeted:

The call to shift away from spaces that consistently refuse to acknowledge and celebrate the work of artists of colour is one that comes up every year; this time, it was also proposed by Pinkett Smith. But the "create our own" option means forgoing the tangible material benefits an Oscar confers that other award shows do not. Oscar winners often receive a sizable increase in their pay cheques (on average a 20 per cent boost) after having the celebrated title attached to their names and nominees, and winners' films often see their distribution, box office numbers and DVD sales, downloads and streams increase.

And as RT noted in a brief conversation, Canada's own industry shares some of the same issues of diversity as the Hollywood system that spawned #OscarsSoWhite.

"In our own Canadian Screen Awards, culturally we're not very represented there either. I think it's a North American entertainment industry issue. I think the only way it's going to change is a concerted effort on all parts."


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