No one can credibly feign surprise at yet another year of only white nominees in the major Oscar categories. #OscarsSoWhite, last awards season’s social media castigation, has resurfaced anyway with vengeance, and rightfully so.
Outraged calls to boycott the ceremony have come from film audiences and Hollywood stars alike. But can celebrities of color ask fans to finance and crusade for their careers when so much of the non-white Hollywood elite has been silent on race and economic inequality? And while the rest of us are busy working on the aforementioned social battles (and new stuff like the #Flint crisis), do we really have time to campaign for Jada Pinkett Smith’s husband?
Black stars who emerged during the Jim Crow, like Harry Belafonte and Eartha Kitt, were considerably more vulnerable to overt retribution in their time than Will Smith, Idris Elba, and Denzel Washington are today. Still, Belafonte and Kitt, along with several of their contemporaries, took definitive stances on dichotomized issues like civil rights, poverty and Vietnam. Kitt for example, refused to perform for segregated audiences. Her daughter revealed on social media that her mother kept a tuxedo ready for every show in case Kitt needed to integrate an audience on the spot by using a member of the venue staff. Kitt also donated proceeds from her live performances to the Civil Rights Movement and the early fight against AIDS. Her gusty comments at the White House on race, Vietnam and urban poverty hurt her career, diminished her income within in the United States and made her target of the CIA’s vicious public smearing.
Spike Lee, known for his vocalization and artistic treatment of racial injustice in the United States, announced he won’t be at this year’s ceremony to accept his (long overdue) honorary Oscar. Lee, however, is not asking actor Chris Rock to turn down the opportunity to host, nor is the filmmaker calling for any others to boycott the show. Jada Pinkett-Smith, in a poignant video plea also does not explicitly ask for Chris Rock to step down; but, she challenges “black people to pull back our resources” from entities that use and snub us. Other actors, such as Tyrese Gibson go further to say that Chris Rock should indeed stand in solidarity with the boycott of the Oscars.
It does seem that rich and acclaimed celebrities of color conveniently forget how systematic oppression works. Will Smith, Samuel Jackson and Benicio Del Toro were asked to participate, along with a few other white actors in The Hollywood Reporter (THR) Actors Roundtable this awards season. The annual female version of this prestigious interview, however, was all white, and THR excused this fact with the claim that no actress of color had done work worthy of a seat at table. (That assertion is debatable.) The situation offered a perfect chance for Smith and the high profile male actors of color to advocate for casting more of their female counterparts in major roles. Instead, Smith accepted the invite and claimed that “racism is pretty rare” in his experience. In that same session, former Oscar winner Benicio del Toro, who was also overlooked by the Academy despite critical acclaim for his role in Sicario, admitted racism is a part of American culture, and it had affected his career. Del Toro has nonetheless refrained from speaking publicly in support of any campaigns or initiatives on racism.
Several music artists and some sports figures have posted on social media or spoken in the media to condemn racial injustices like the highly publicized deaths of unarmed African Americans. Tyrese Gibson, Samuel Jackson, and a number of other black actors have also openly supported the Black Lives Matter movement. But many of the highest profile actors of color, the ones who have been afforded the heavyweight award contending roles, have been notably silent or evasive on this issue. Multiple Oscar winner and nominee Denzel Washington, for instance reveals he had the black parent talk with his sons, and that he, himself, has been a victim of racial profiling. Despite this, Washington avoided speaking in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
To be fair, many celebrities of color contribute money and time to social justice efforts behind the scenes. Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, for instance, donated $150,000 to Justice or Else! to help fund the commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March. Benicio Del Toro has lent his name to the President Obama’s initiative to stop rape on college campuses. And, Denzel Washington is as legendary for whipping out his checkbook as he is for adeptly playing police officers and military personnel.
What does Black Lives Matter have to do with boycotting the Oscars? The issue of racial inequality is a matter of life and death for millions of people in the United States. The real question is, why should those same people shout racism to help the elite of the elite in our society win a gold-plated statue, if these privileged individuals can’t stand against racism to save our lives?
Some causes, particularly the fight against failures of the criminal justice system, need as much momentum and public support possible. The people most victimized by this form of racial oppression have the smallest voices in society, and the least capacity to fight for themselves. The threat of career risk by alienating fans who find the topic disagreeable is not a valid justification for stars of color to stand on the sidelines. In the era of Twitter and Facebook, where average people use their social connections to call attention to race and economic justice issues, they too put themselves at risk of alienating people — their family, friends, and even employers.
Was Aunt Viv right? Do we have time to help performers who fail to stick up for their colleagues or fade conveniently into the background while we shout the names Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner? Yes, we must always take a moment when needed to rally against racist practices of the Academy and other media organizations. Foremost, the denial of due peer recognition and career opportunities is a manifestation of racial and economic injustice, in any industry. To keep silent when it happens in such a highly visible and (allegedly) progressive field reinforces the normalization of systemic racism. Also, film is a vital part of American culture. Award nominations tend to provide future opportunities for actors. The more actors of color working in the medium, the better the medium reflects our society.
Anything less than full representation of people of color marginalizes a large portion of our nation’s identity and demeans the country as a whole. Maybe the Academy’s decision to finally recognize the outspoken Spike Lee with an (honorary) statue is a small but necessary attempt at penance.