An all-white list of Oscar nominees is all wrong for America, say leaders of some of the nation’s elite black and Latino awards shows.
“It would be great if the Oscar nominees represented even closely the percentage of moviegoers who are of different ethnicities, but they don’t,” said Stephen Hill, President of Programming at BET Networks.
“The Oscar is the top movie award in the industry. If you’re in an industry and that’s the top prize, you just want to feel like you can be included in that.”
Hill’s comments came less than a week after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its latest list of nominees for the esteemed annual awards show, which airs Feb. 28.
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Stephen Hill (left), President of Programming at BET Networks, wants the Oscars to represent the “percentage of moviegoers who are of different ethnicities,” while Jada Pinkett Smith (right, with husband Will Smith) has called for a boycott of the award show.
For the second year in a row, no nominations went to actors or filmmakers of color, leading to anger and outrage from black performers like Jada Pinkett-Smith, who issued a call on Facebook for a boycott of this year’s show, reviving last year’s Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
“Begging for acknowledgement, or even asking, diminishes dignity,” Pinkett-Smith said.
Hill had no comment on calls for a boycott, but he said #OscarsSoWhite is why African-American-centered media outlets like BET exist in the first place.
The network, founded in 1980 by black media mogul Robert Johnson, was started because he saw a lack of diversity on traditional television networks like ABC, NBC and CBS.
For years, BET — Black Entertainment Television — which celebrates its 35th anniversary next week, was the only network that aired black music videos in primetime because stations like MTV refused to do so.
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In 1983, rock star David Bowie, who died Jan. 10, famously took MTV VJ Mark Goodman to task for the station’s lack of diversity.
“I’m just floored by the fact that there’s so few black artists featured on (MTV). Why is that?” Bowie asked.
“We have to play the type of music the entire country would like,” Goodman responded.
BET created its own show, the BET Awards, in 2001, to honor top achievers in black arts and entertainment.
“It was a matter of wanting to celebrate our own,” said Hill, who is black. “It’s about celebrating African-American life and African-American culture. The BET Awards is that on steroids.”
The late David Bowie asks MTV VJ Mark Goodman about the then-fledgling station about its lack of diversity in 1983.
The Latino-American-centered National Council of La Raza founded the American Latin Media Arts (ALMA) Awards in 1995 for similar reasons after seeing reluctance from traditionally white institutions like the Academy Awards to recognize top performing Latinos.
“We wanted to use the ALMA Awards as an incentive for Hollywood to create more content in this community,” said council spokeswoman Lisa Navarrete, who works for the ALMAs.
The ALMAs last aired on NBC in October 2014. Due to low ratings, it was booted to MSNBC — only to be canceled last year. Organizers are struggling to find an English-language network to air the program.
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Latin-Americans actually may have even more reason to gripe about the Academy Awards than African-Americans. Actress Lupita Nyong’o is the last black actor to receive an Oscar for her 2013 supporting role in “12 Years a Slave,” which won Best Picture.
BET was founded by Robert Johnson in 1980, to counteract a lack of diversity he noted in other networks.
It’s been 15 years since a Latin-American won an Oscar.
Actor Benicio Del Toro won one in 2001 for his supporting role in the movie “Traffic.” The last Latin-American to win before Del Toro was Rita Moreno — in 1961 — for her supporting role in the classic “West Side Story.”
“We’re very disappointed by the makeup of the acting nominations,” Navarrete said. “We’ve never had a Best Actress winner. Hollywood has to do a much better job right now with communities of color, particularly in what gets green-lighted.”
Navarrete’s words resonate with film producers of color like Effie Brown of HBO’s hit show “Project Greenlight,” the “American Idol” for up-and-coming filmmakers.
Producer Effie Brown clashed with actor Matt Damon over diversity and merit on “Project Greenlight” in 2015.
On the show’s season four premiere last year, Brown verbally sparred with actor Matt Damon over whether promoting diversity should be considered in which films the show green lights.
“When we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show,” Damon said. “Do you want the best director?”
He later apologized for those remarks, but Navarrete said Damon’s point about merit is one of the most frustrating misconceptions about winning Oscars and green-lighting films.
Benecio Del Toro was the last Latin-American actor to win an Oscar, for his supporting role in the 2000 movie “Traffic.” He is seen with Marcia Gay Harden after 2001’s ceremony.
“Merit is not an objective thing,” she said. “You bring all your pre-conceived notions to that. They feel like they’re honoring merit, but it’s unconscious bias. Your criteria for what is meritorious is subjective. That’s why it’s important to have different perspectives in the academy.”
Right now, those perspectives are almost all white and all male. The academy has 6,291 voting members, 94% of whom are white and 74% of whom are male. Among its members, 14% are 50 or older.
As the academy continues to struggle diversifying itself, some people question why it matters if people of color are included in the show.
Issues like terrorism, gun control, police brutality and death water in Flint, Mich., should certainly rank higher on America’s priority list, but Hill said #OscarsSoWhite and other issues affecting people of color are connected.
“There’s a lack of respect for the African-American population,” he said. “While the issues are not equally important, that is the common thread.”
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