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Do We Still Need The Academy Awards?

There are no Black leading actresses nominated for the Oscars in 2022. Let that sink in. The Academy Awards has always struggled to include diverse nominations and winners: in the history of the Oscars, only six Black directors have been nominated for the Directing category and none have ever won. As this struggle resurfaces year after year, it forces us to ask if the Oscars, created by the The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, are the best way to evaluate film and performance. Why should an institute created and led by white men still be the dominant voice in determining what makes a critically acclaimed film?

On May 16, 1929, the first Academy Awards took place in the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, created and hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Academy, conceived by Louis B. Mayer and other prominent players in Hollywood, was originally birthed to combat or at least delay unionization. After enlisting MGM studio labor in order to build his Santa Monica beach house faster and cheaper, Mayer realized that there were increasing union contracts being put into place that would cut into his profits. So in an effort to distract laborers from joining the unions, Mayer and his colleagues created the Academy–an empty promise of better working conditions combined with the prestige of awards was a convincing distraction from organizing. 

The Oscars were built upon a foundation of race, class, and gender oppression, intended to advance a white, male version of film and performance. Out of the 36 founding members of the Academy, all were white and only three were women. The first recipient of the Oscar for Best Actor, Emil Jannings, went on to star in Nazi propaganda films during the second World War. When Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for Best Actress in 1940, she was shown to a small table against the wall instead of to the table with her Gone With the Wind costars; the Ambassador Hotel where the Oscars were held was segregated, and producer David Selznick had to call in a favor just to have McDaniel in the building. The Academy Awards did not become white, it was always white, and it was intentionally built to uphold and perpetuate existing power structures. 

In January 2015, when all 20 acting nominations went to white actors and actresses, diversity and inclusion advocate April Reign was inspired to create the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in order to draw attention to the lack of representation. Her hashtag quickly gained steam, prompting many stars (including Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay) to boycott the 2016 Oscars after the nominees were once again completely white. 

Reign’s hashtag inspired a movement that forced the Oscars to make visible changes to their nominations and the Academy itself, starting with a new set of eligibility rules for Best Picture. There are now four groups of standards that encourage films to include people of color on and off screen; films must meet at least two categories to be considered. Between 2015 and 2020, the percentage of female members increased from 25 percent to 33 percent. The percentage of people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups has grown from 10 percent to 19 percent. 

However, even with all these changes, each year we wait with bated breath to see what level of representation the Academy will grant us. Watching only four Black men and women receive nominations for the Acting categories in 2022 feels like a step back, but what if there was never much of a step forward in the first place? Can an organization built upon whiteness ever truly serve people of color adequately? 

Audre Lorde would have said no. She believed that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” To work with the Academy in order to diversify the Oscars would be to use the master’s tools; if we want to bring lasting change and define it on our own terms, Black people cannot rely upon a pillar of whiteness to build an equitable stand for Blackness. It is time that we create our own metrics of success, in particular by redefining how we evaluate Black production. 

Black owned production such as Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records represents the ability to steal back power from white institutions and redistribute that power to Black companies and individuals. When Jay-Z could not find a record label to sign him, he made his own instead; he didn’t allow majority white executives to determine the trajectory of his career or what counts as good music, but rather he started a wildly successful Black-owned determinant of his own success. 

Despite the Academy’s attempts to diversify their voting members, as of 2020 women constituted just 33 percent and people of color only 16 percent of the total voting body–a 3 percent rise in each category since 2017. So instead of waiting for an institution that was built upon maintaining the film industry status quo to change drastically, why don’t we shift the metric for what determines a good movie? Fighting for recognition in a white space has always been a demanding task, but now it is time to take that power away from the Academy.  The Oscars do not reflect the world that we live in today. Instead of appealing to an organization founded in whiteness for change, we need to shift the power to women and people of color in order to determine what makes a good movie.

We don’t need the Academy Awards in order to validate Black art and artists because in order to reclaim Blackness we have to stop defining Black success through its white interpretations.

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