Why #OscarsSoWhite Matters

John Krasinski, left, and Cheryl Boone Isaacs announce the Academy Award nominations for best performance by an actor in a leading role on January 14, 2016.

Hollywood has an image problem. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently announced the nominees for its top acting awards for films produced in 2015, controversy erupted over the fact that—for the second year in a row—all of those honored were white people. Predictably, social media mavens rushed in to complain, resurrecting the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, which quickly went viral. Meanwhile, some celebrities called for a boycott of the Academy Awards show when it airs next month.

Movie industry observers doubt that performers refusing to walk the red carpet or stargazers tuning to another channel will hobble ABC’s advertising rates for the February 28 broadcast. But more is at stake than just money. The lack of racial diversity in Hollywood and among its honored performers is a notable concern given that America’s motion-picture industry fashions make-believe into a credible, if alternate, reality for people around the world. As Yahya R. Kamalipour, a media scholar and chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, wrote in the introduction to his 1998 book Images of the U.S. around the World: A Multicultural Perspective, U.S.-made movies have global impact:

Ours is a world of images, images of all kinds—images that are often consciously manipulated and manufactured to create an identity or status for selling mass-produced products or for promoting or demoting a political candidate, a company, a nation, or a religion by economically driven institutions or conglomerates whose major concerns are self-interest and increased monetary profits. …

In short, when it comes to production of images, no nation holds more power than the United States in terms of reach and penetration into cultures of the world.

It is not—as some, including British actress Charlotte Rampling, have suggested—as if there are not people of color who are deserving of Oscar nominations. While far from a film critic, I’m reliably informed that several black actors turned in Oscar-nomination-worthy roles in 2015, such as Michael B. Jordan in “Creed,” Will Smith in “Concussion,” Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation,” and Samuel L. Jackson in “The Hateful Eight.” In addition to black actors, other nonwhite or minority actors were snubbed, including Benicio Del Toro for “Sicario,” Oscar Isaac for “Ex Machina,” and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor—two transgender actresses—for “Tangerine.”

Ironically, this entire hullabaloo comes on the watch of Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the academy’s first black president. After the nomination announcement, Boone Isaacs told reporters she was “disappointed” by the lack of diversity among the candidates. A week later, the academy’s board issued a statement that outlined a “series of substantive changes” that were clearly aimed at staunching the cutting criticism. Specifically, the board said it would seek to include more women and minorities among those voting for Oscar nominations. Time will tell if this is simply a public relations move or an effort at real change in Hollywood’s clubby corridors.

Steve McQueen—who made history as the only black director to win a best picture Oscar, for his 2012 movie “12 Years A Slave”—expressed cautious optimism that change is coming. In an interview with The Guardian, he compared Hollywood’s foot-dragging on race to the music video business in the 1980s, describing how David Bowie called out MTV for refusing to show black musicians during the station’s early days:

Hopefully, when people look back at this in 20 years, it’ll be like seeing that David Bowie clip in 1983. I don’t even want to wait 20 years. Forgive me; I’m hoping in 12 months or so we can look back and say this was a watershed moment, and thank God we put that right.

For whatever value they hold beyond the self-congratulatory applause of colleagues and the ability to request higher wages, Oscar nominations—and those golden Oscar statuettes—denote success in a closed industry. They signify, both within the movie industry and beyond to the voyeuristic outside world, whom movie moguls deem a success—and whom they do not.

The bitter reality is that images that ignore or dismiss sweeping swatches of the world’s population as less than successful broadcast a large and limited message. Hollywood is out of touch with the world that its movie magicians recast as reality, yet its screen images leave a lasting impact on how all of us see each other around the globe.

And this is precisely why #OscarsSoWhite is more than an embarrassing social media trend. Rather, it illustrates perfectly how Hollywood repeatedly fails to honestly depict life in America. #OscarsSoWhite matters because it could push the film industry to cease creating and spreading the message—both in America and around the globe—that success is exclusive to white people.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.