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Editorial | Oscars perpetuate minority exclusion

Published: Thursday, January 23, 2014

Updated: Thursday, January 23, 2014 08:01

Over 40 million Americans are expected to tune in to the 86th Academy Awards on March 2. Although film buffs are aware that the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decide which talented artists receive an Oscar, few know the demographics of what many simply refer to as “the Academy.” The Los Angeles Times reported that out of the 5,765 members listed in the Academy roster, only six percent are not white, and 77 percent are men. After reflecting on the lack of diversity within the Academy, it is important to not only question the significance of the Oscars, but also how voting members reinforce the lack of visibility for minority actors and actresses. 

This year, some of the biggest Oscar snubs affected demographically underrepresented artists: Oprah Winfrey for Best Supporting Actress for her powerful performance in “The Butler” (2013), and Octavia Spencer for her supporting role in “Fruitvale Station” (2013). Halle Berry remains the only African-American woman that has ever won the Oscar for Best Actress. 

“The Butler” and “Fruitvale Station” both failed to secure Best Picture nominations in a year with many successful, African-American-led films. Only one film with non-white lead actors, “12 Years a Slave,” is nominated this year. “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen is only the third African-American director to ever be nominated in his category. If he wins this year, he will make history as the first ever. 

Even though the most popular films are never guaranteed wins, many assume the awards reflect the motion pictures acclaimed by all Americans, regardless of race or gender. In reality, the results reflect what older, predominantly white men consider excellent acting, directing, etc. Thus, the coveted 2014 Oscar for Best Picture will reflect what old, white men fell in love with this year in theaters. This does not nescessarily mean that these members vote solely for artists like them. But the numbers don’t lie: most Oscar winners are white men. 

As a result, an admired cultural institution, which should recognize art regardless of race, gender and age, has repeatedly honored artists that echo a narrow demographic. Predominantly white and male Academy Award winners go on with their careers, brandishing their golden statue and the subsequent draw and incentive to be cast in future films with other Oscar-winning artists. Many will be invited to become members of the Academy themselves, and will then have a say in determining the next generation of honorees. 

The failure to fairly represent minorities, women and younger artists in the ranks of Academy members is endemic to the motion picture industry and ultimately reflective of the worth assigned to the stories we wish to tell and celebrate. We can reject this by supporting and affirming art made by exceptionally talented minority artists who are some of the most important contributors to our greater American “Academy.” 

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