Boycotting the Oscars is pointless

by Isaiah Webster III

The Oscars aren’t Black enough, and Hollywood’s Black community is threatening a boycott.

Since nominations for the 88th annual Academy Awards were announced last week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been under fire because all 20 of the acting nominations went to White people. Most Oscar observers felt Will Smith (”Concussion”) and Idris Elba (”Beats of No Nation”) were snubbed. Almost immediately, the uproar began, but it’s really picked up steam now that Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith are urging a boycott.

The Academy has had a tortured history with race. Almost every year, the Oscars have faced criticism for a lack of diversity in its nominees. And even when Blacks have won Oscars — like Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball” or Denzel Washington for “Training Day” — folks have complained that the winning roles didn’t project positive images of Black people.

Without question, the Academy doesn’t nominate enough people of color for Oscars. But there are two reasons for that, and it’s easily explained.

First, there are too few quality roles for Black and Latino actors. Moreover, Black and Latino people are rarely cast in quality roles where race and ethnicity is irrelevant. If people of color aren’t given quality roles in quality films, than it stands to reason they won’t be in contention for awards. It’s really that simple. The first step towards diversifying the Oscars is to diversify the people in quality roles.

Secondly, Academy members vote on who gets nominated for Academy Awards. Nominations aren’t decided by Hollywood popular vote or even by the success of a given film. In order to become a member of the Academy, you must first be nominated for an Oscar. Therefore, this creates a catch-22 for minorities. Since Blacks are few within the Academy, they can’t nominate more Blacks and thereby create more Black members. And even if the Academy suddenly did have more Black members, there aren’t sufficient Black roles in quality films that would warrant a proliferation in Oscar nominations.

It’s all a vicious cycle that perpetuates itself every few years, and leads to calls for boycotts.

Cynics might say that there are quality Black performances that are simply being ignored by the Academy. There is some truth in this. However, since human beings vote on the nominations, the Academy can’t remove bias from the nomination process even if it wanted to do so. Inherently, there’s no fairness in personal preferences; and that’s what’s happened to Oscar nominations.

For these reasons, boycotting the Oscars make little sense. The Academy is powerless to enact any significant change in who’s nominated. The Academy does have complete control of the ceremony, and this is where it has shown its commitment to diversity. In fact, Chris Rock is returning as host for the upcoming Oscar ceremony. Last year, many of the presenters were people of color. I’d expect these symbolic gestures to continue.

However, the movie studios and the casting directors have the biggest influence on who ultimately wins Oscars. It is the studios and casting directors who are passing over quality Black actors for quality roles. Boycotting the Oscars would be like addressing the symptoms, but not the underlying illness. Instead a making a big stink about the Academy Awards and who gets Oscars — we should invest our time and energy in ensuring people of color have an opportunity to be in quality cinema in the first place.

UPDATE: The Academy is changing its membership rules to be more diverse.