Are Oscars STILL So White?

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S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. It’s Oscar season, and the universe of filmmakers and lovers is coming together to celebrate their favorite movies of the year. It’s also a time to spotlight what Hollywood has and has not done to improve racial representation in film.

S2: The Academy said that they were making all these changes, but when you pull the curtain back, you can see that it’s the same old wizard and he really isn’t again interested in making any substantive change.

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S1: April Reign OscarsSoWhite and the fight for inclusion in film coming up on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a word, a podcast about race in politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. The Oscars are the Super Bowl for film lovers with packs of fans waiting all year to see their favorites get recognized for being at the top of their game. 2020 two’s Oscar nominees include several black artists like Ariana DuBose for her role in West Side Story.

S3: You think I want to stay here in the city for our wobbly little animals like you? No grass here. Journalist Roy Americana drove Puerto Ricans.

S1: Aunjanue Ellis and Will Smith for performances in King Richard. So what you want?

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S4: What you want. You want. Thank you.

S5: That’s all right, Richard. That’s all right. I don’t need your. Thank you. Unlike you, I don’t need the world to tell me I’m great.

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S1: And of course, Denzel Washington for starring in the tragedy of Macbeth.

S4: And tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.

S1: Before the movie fans of color. There isn’t always much to cheer for. There have been years when major war categories are entirely white. Even movies that have all the markings of Oscar bait, like the 2014 historical drama Selma, get little, if any, recognition. It was this phenomenon that inspired the 2015 hashtag OscarsSoWhite. It soon blossomed into a movement to compel Hollywood to reflect the diversity of the country and the consumer audience. The woman behind that hashtag is April Reign. She’s an attorney and media strategist, and OscarsSoWhite has turned her into one of the most prominent voices calling for diversity in film and awards for film. And April Reign joins us now. April, welcome to a word.

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S2: Thank you so much for having me, Jason.

S1: I want to get into your origin story. And I think some people who may be familiar with OscarsSoWhite may not necessarily know why you are the person that came up with that. So just tell us a little bit about you. What career were you in? What were sort of your professional interests when you created OscarsSoWhite? Before we get into sort of how it’s changed your life sense.

S2: Sure. Well, people ask me where I came from and I say I came from the audience. I am a huge entertainment consumer, whether that’s stage, big screen or small screen. And in January of 2015, I was still a practicing attorney. I was watching the Oscar nominations that come on one of the morning TV shows, as I did every year, because, as you said, the Oscars were my Super Bowl. And it struck me it was not the first time and unfortunately would not be the last. But this particular year, January of 2015, there were no people of color nominated for any of the acting category. So that’s two slots Best Supporting Actor. An actress and Best Actor an actress. And so my phone is typically embedded in my in my forearm. I’m a huge Twitter user. So I jumped on Twitter and I said Oscars. So wait, they asked to touch my hair and that was it. It was one tweet. I went on to work. I checked in on Twitter around lunchtime. And based on that one tweet, the hashtag was trending around the world.

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S1: Wow. Okay. So once it starts trending around the world, what made you say, oh, well, let me turn this into an overall movement as opposed to, wow, I’ve had a hot 15 minutes of trending. What was what was the next step like when you sort of created this hashtag? How did you turn it into a movement?

S2: Initially, the responses to the hashtag were as snarky and petty as I was being, so it was OscarsSoWhite. They have a perfect credit score. OscarsSoWhite, they find mayonnaise too spicy. You get the idea. And it wasn’t until a couple of days later that the conversation shifted to something more substantive about the lack of inclusion and representation, both in front of the camera and behind the camera with respect to the entire film industry, not just the Oscars, which I consider to be the end of the line. You know, we really need to be talking about what happens at the screenwriting stage, because by the time we get to the Oscars, it’s too late to make any substantive changes. So I was receiving a lot of requests to speak and talk and go places, and I realized that I just could not do both. And I also realized that talking about and advocating for equity and inclusion within the entertainment industry with my passion that I was finding at this midlife process. So at some point I realized I could not do both. I had not been happy practicing well, so I left my job there and figured out a way to make a hashtag still interesting and relevant and also able to pay the mortgage.

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S1: I want to know, after you sort of leave law, you’re going to make it this movement. I’m a fan who’s been activated. I think the studios need to hear people are bringing me in. What kind of resistance did you get? Now, Twitter is one thing because it is full of snarky, anonymous people. But. I’m sure that there had to be long standing critics, possibly even actors and actresses, let alone producers and directors who were thinking, Well, who the hell is this lady? Who’s this black lady lawyer? And why should we listen to her? What kind of resistance did you run into after you decided to make OscarsSoWhite a sort of movement and sort of your profession?

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S2: Well, you were speaking in the past tense, but unfortunately it’s still present and there’s still a lot of resistance. And it comes from everyone. It comes from people of color, which is always a bit surprising and disappointing. It comes from the industry itself. It comes from not just the Oscars, but all of the award shows who say, you know, just let the best and the brightest, the cream rise to the top and all the rest of it. So it’s been interesting fielding the concerns that I’m hearing. Oh, well, you know, why are we, you know, looking to the white man for validation? That’s a big one within the black and brown communities. Why just black people when OscarsSoWhite is truly about all traditionally underrepresented communities, not just black people, not just people of color, but also people of every sexual orientation and gender identity and visible and invisible disability and age and all traditionally underrepresented communities to this day. You know, here we are in 20, 22, eight years, I guess, into OscarsSoWhite, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The folks who run the Oscars have never reached out to me. They have made various strives to make what they think is substantive change. I think they’ve all fallen flat. So it comes and goes. But you expect that no one really likes change. And so there’s always going to be some pushback when you’re suggesting something totally different.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more on diversity at the Oscars. This is a word we’re Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson, host of a word Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else. I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and liked what you hear, please subscribe, rate and review wherever you listen to podcast and let us know what you think by writing us at a word at Slate.com. Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking with April Reign about diversity at the Oscars. So you’ve said what you see, what I see, what most black and brown people see. There’s a problem with the way that Hollywood presents diversity, but there’s even a problem with how people talk about diversity. Tell us a little bit about, in your view, the difference between diversity and inclusion and how our language about these ideas needs to improve.

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S2: The way that I like to explain diversity, equity and inclusion is to think about a party. You’re going to throw a party. You want to invite everybody. And so you send out a bazillion invitations. That’s diversity, right? Everybody is invited. Now, people may not be able to afford the price point of your party, and so you make the tickets based on a sliding scale. That’s equity. So everybody that wants to attend can inclusion, which should be the goal, is actually inviting people to dance at the party. Anybody listening to a middle school or high school party knows that for the most part, people are standing against the wall, right? Afraid to dance with each other and no one’s having a whole bunch of fun. The true goal, I think, is inclusion when everybody is out on the floor having a great time. So they feel like it is money well spent and that’s where we should be leading.

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S1: At the Critics Choice Awards this week, Jane Campion wins best director for her film Power of the Dog. And for some reason, she says this.

S3: You know, Serena and Venus, you are such marvels. However, you do not play against the guys like I have to.

S1: This quote has led to a massive ratio online. She’s apologized for what she said, but I still think it speaks to the fact that lots of white folks, including ones who would consider themselves allies, do not get what diversity inclusion means first. What did you think about this quote from Campion? And then further. How do we tackle people with that kind of bias who think that they’re actually helping?

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S2: It’s exhausting. One must ask why you have to tear down others to build yourself up. First and foremost, what she said was factually inaccurate, because we know that Venus and Serena have both competed against men both on and off the court. You know, they have been leading the charge with respect to pay equity off the court, and they’ve also participated in mixed doubles on the court. So that part wasn’t right. Secondly, it’s your moment. So why are you spending time talking about how you were better than other people? You’ve already won the award. Right. We figured but we figured that out. And so are a couple of things I think about. I think about the hashtag started by Mikki Kendall. That’s the solidarity is for white women. You know, as you mentioned, Jane Campion probably thinks that she’s an ally. And the biggest problem I have with allies is that if you are self-identifying as one, it probably means that you aren’t. It probably means that, you know, you’ve got a blind spot there somewhere. And secondly, I think about the term misogyny wire, which was created by Moya Bailey, and it’s the intersection of both racism and sexism. And Venus and Serena Williams have experienced that their entire professional careers and also as children. We found not too long ago there was a wonderful article printed about Serena Williams in the newspaper.

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S1: Yes. It’s New York Times, I believe.

S2: Yes. And they use the picture of Venus now. My goodness. These are some of the most well-recognized women in the world. How do you make that mistake? And so, you know, Campion crafted a hastily worded apology, which in my mind is too little, too late. But it wasn’t just her words. It was seeing her with Venus after the awards. You know, she’s giving this hug, and you can just see the body language of Venus in having to perform and be gentle and be thoughtful and kind when she may have felt, you know, very upset. But we aren’t allowed to feel upset because then there’s the angry black woman trope. So the entire thing was unfortunate.

S1: The first black woman to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel, and she was a mammy in Gone With the Wind. And we’ve seen that there’s this sort of tradition that black people don’t tend to win awards from the Oscars unless they’re in these diminished capacities with white people. They are victimized by white people and stand up to it in a noble way. They are enslaved to white people. They teach some white person how to not be somewhat as rotten as they used to be. And in many respects, that makes a lot of black folks not want to watch these films. When you’ve been going around talking to people, do you hear that from black actors and producers and creatives themselves? Do they feel a pressure that when they want to make something that’s Oscar bait? I guess I have to make this about oppressed black folks. Or is it really just these tend to be the films that white folks like and sometimes you make them, sometimes you don’t.

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S2: It’s an interesting question, I think about the fact that Miles Davis film made by Don Cheadle, you know, Don said that he could not get the film made until he inserted a white male character. And that’s unfortunate. You know, I think about the fact that Spike Lee had to crowdsource, you know, before go fund me for the film X, you know, and several black celebrities and public figures donated money so that he could finish the film. I don’t know that that actors and producers think that way, like, I have to make this film because it’s foremost in my understanding, it’s not about the awards, it’s about making great film. And if they eventually get nominated and win something, all the better. But what we also know, you know, as you were talking about Oscar winner Halle Berry won for Monster’s Ball 20 years ago. And she has very publicly said that the accolades and the benefits that one would expect to receive as an Oscar winner, having that phrase after your name did not materialize for her. Right. And so if you know that even after winning an Oscar, you’re still going to have to read for roles and audition as if you were, you know. Someone just off the street. Then the Oscars or the Golden Globes or the SAGs or, you know, any of the others really are the goal. But I do take your point that many consumers, entertainment consumers, those of us who are sitting in our, you know, darkened living rooms and sometimes in theaters, you know, pre-pandemic, are turning away from what some would call trauma porn. You know, those films that only show us in a diminished light. On the other hand, when we are allowed to show our resilience in those films, I think about Barry Jenkins, you know, Underground Railroad, which was TV, but felt like ten small movies together. You know, then I think there’s a nuance there that is missed. And that’s when white people try to show our humanity. And that’s why it’s important not just who is telling the story, but whose story is being told.

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S1: When you have the Halle Berry’s who you know, okay, I win the award and it didn’t improve my pay. When you look at people like Mahershala Ali who won, you know, got an Oscar did Green Book, when you look at some of the awards that black people have gotten. Has there been an improvement in what they’re offered since in any shape or form? If it’s not financial, have they at least been given the opportunity to perhaps be more creative in the roles they select once they win an Oscar? Or is it pretty much not changed since Monster’s Ball?

S2: It’s hard to know because we don’t know. We don’t know all the machinations that happen behind the scenes. Right. We know once an actor or an actress is attached to a film, but we don’t know what the process was to get them, you know, to that place where they can be announced a deadline of variety or what have you. So, you know, I think about you mentioned Mahershala Ali, who was sublime in Moonlight, but that was considered a co-starring role, as was Green Book for him. And so his first starring role, which sounds surprising to say, was in Swan Song, you know, that was broadcast on Apple TV. And I thought that was a really strong showing for him, but it was routinely omitted from every single acting awards, you know. And the same is true for women. I look at Regina King and Viola Davis. The fact that Viola Davis still has to audition for a role is baffling to me. Widows, I think, was her first sort of action role, and she had to fight to get that. She would love to do a horror film, but that hasn’t happened for her. And so there’s definitely a need for more for actors from marginalized communities, not just black actors, but, you know, the fact that we’re talking about the first deaf man to be nominated, you know, in for the Oscars this year, which is Troy Cutler for the film Coda. And in fact, that was in a supporting role means that we’re still talking about first in 2022 and there’s a lot more that needs to happen.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. We come back more with April Reign, founder of the movement OscarsSoWhite. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking with April Reign, founder of the movement OscarsSoWhite. So, look, the Academy of Motion Pictures, Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did aim to diversify its membership. And the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the Golden Globes was essentially a platform taken off television, largely because it seemed to have no interest in diversifying. I mean, do you think these changes have made a real difference? I mean, from from your perspective?

S2: No. And I’m not even sure that I I’m not even sure I take the your premise that they actually wanted to diversify. I think I made a lot of noise and they were embarrassed and they tried to throw some things at the wall and thought I would go away quietly. And that was yet to happen. So in 2016, after this second consecutive year, that there were no people of color nominated in any of the acting categories, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said that they were going to double the number of people of color and double the number of women within their membership ranks by 2020. And they, in fact, did that. So kudos to you. But when you’re going from 8% to 16%, there really isn’t a significant change. And so the Academy is still here. We are now eight years later, overwhelmingly male and I think willingly white. A couple of years ago, the Academy announced something else, which was they were going to change the requirements to be nominated for best picture. And there are four different rubrics, two of which can be met during the filming of the movie, and two which can be met in post. So with respect to distribution and that kind of thing, one of the many problems with that is that the loopholes are so large with this latest attempt that you can drive a truck through them. For example, the film Gone With the Wind would qualify under the new rubric for the Oscars. And if that would qualify, then you can imagine all of the others that will also qualify. So what I say is that this is window dressing on a condemned house. The Academy put these things out there, you know, and there was all kinds of class and pomp and circumstance so that they were making all these changes. But when you pull the curtain back, you can see that it’s the same old wizard and he really isn’t, again, interested in making any substantive change.

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S1: April Reign is a media strategist and advocate for diversity and inclusion and the creator of the movement, OscarsSoWhite. Thank you so much for joining me today on a word.

S2: I appreciate you have any. Thank you.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Jasmine Ellis. Alicia montgomery is the executive producer of podcast. It’s late June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate Podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for Word.