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Will and Jada Should Go to the Oscars

There is definitely a diversity problem in Hollywood, but stars like Will and Jada Pinkett Smith will not be able to fix it by excluding themselves.

by Touré
Jan 25 2016, 5:00am

The social media movement #OscarsSoWhite definitely has a point. Once again the Academy has ignored the few strong contributions that black people were able to make to the overwhelmingly white film industry. F. Gary Gray's Straight Out of Compton is good enough to deserve a Best Picture nomination. Michael B. Jordan did great work in Creed as did Idris Elba in the powerful Beasts of No Nation. Sam Jackson was great in The Hateful Eight. And Rick Famuyiwa's Dope was definitely one of the best movies of the year. Any of these people could have and should have been nominated. It matters that black actors have been shut out, it matters professionally to those involved and it matters in a nation where the exclusion perpetuates the notion that blacks are lesser. The movement protesting the Oscar's lack of diversity has already inspired change. But I hope that Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, who are at the forefront of the push for black stars to boycott the award ceremony, realize they are conceding some of their power by excluding themselves.

Last Friday, the Academy announced a plan that would increase diversity in their voting body, seeking to double the percentage of actors of color and women in voting positions by 2020. They also plan to add three seats to the 51-seat board of governors. The new board members will be nominated by Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy president. Yes, these changes happened in part because of the bad publicity the Academy received around the boycott. But they also happened because Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a black woman, had a seat at the table and used her power to make real changes from the inside.

Will and Jada should take a note from Isaacs. Boycotting is a tactic for people who can't speak directly to Hollywood. But insiders like the Smiths have real access and wield real clout. Will is one of the few black people in Hollywood who could actually get elected onto the Academy's board of governors. He could make more of an impact as part of the board overseeing the Oscars than he ever could by staying home on Oscar night.

The people clamoring for a boycott are barking at the tree, when the problem is the forest. As Viola Davis said during a red carpet interview with ET, "You can change the Academy, but if there are no black films being produced, what is there to vote for?" The problem isn't really at the Oscars, that's just a symptom. The problem is that Hollywood's power structure is almost entirely white and the films it makes are overwhelmingly white. Even director Spike Lee—who isn't attending the Oscars this year, but is not calling for a boycott—understands that the problem is bigger than just nominations. As he said on Good Morning America, "It goes further than the Academy Awards. It has to go back to the gatekeepers... We're not in the room [with] the executives when they have these green-light meetings quarterly, where they look at the scripts and they decide what we're making and what we're not making."

The lack of Oscar nominations for black actors is just an outgrowth of the lack of opportunity for people of color in Hollywood. A recent report on diversity in Hollywood from UCLA found that black people remain underrepresented in every employment category and white males dominate the jobs that bestow the power to green light films—94 percent of film studio heads are white. Blacks are left out even though the report found more than half of frequent moviegoers are people of color.

For the #OscarSoWhite movement to have a real impact, they should tap into the power of those moviegoers. In general, boycotts are much more powerful when there's an economic component. The legendary Montgomery bus boycott succeeded in forcing the end of segregation on city buses because black customers declined to ride the bus for almost a year. Imagine what would happen if the black and brown customers, who spend $3 billion at the movies each year, were urged to boycott Hollywood films at the box-office. That would motivate change. Even a movement for black and brown viewers to not watch the Oscars could have more of an impact on Hollywood's bottom line than Jada and Will just deciding not to attend.

But what's even more nonsensical than stars like Will and Jada not going to the Oscars is the call made by celebrities like Tyrese and 50 Cent for Chris Rock to step down as the host. If the Oscars have a racial problem, who do you want standing in front of Hollywood with a mic and five minutes to say whatever he wants? Chris, with his cold-blooded wit.

On Saturday, Oscar producer Reggie Hudlin confirmed to Variety that Rock will be speaking on the boycott during the show. Hudlin said, "as things got a little provocative and exciting, he said, 'I'm throwing out the show I wrote and writing a new show.'" We want Chris Rock telling the Oscars about themselves while the world is watching.

In the not too distant future, Hollywood will have to broaden its purview for artistic reasons, because telling truthful stories in a browner America will require that. It will have to broaden its scope for business reasons, too. Black consumers go out to see an average of six movies a year and hispanic moviegoers go out to the movies an average of 10 times a year. These are audiences that can move Hollywood by voting with their wallet. And as the percentage of white Americans diminishes and the percentage of people of color rise, they'll gain even more power.

I'm not saying that all of the problems will be fixed by a demographic sea change in America. I'm saying Hollywood will face problems if it does not grow to match the growth of America. We can be more effective in shoving them toward that growth by having those with power in Hollywood sitting at the table on one hand, while others help create a new wave of black and brown filmmakers and actors who can change Hollywood from the ground up. Or, if we want to force radical change, hit them in the wallet by avoiding Hollywood movies altogether and show them how powerful we really are. I'd be down to participate in that. Until then, I will be watching the Oscars to hear what Chris Rock has to say and to see the Mexican filmmaking genius Alejandro Inarritu win the final award of the night.

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