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“The Oscars Are Still So White”: While Awards Project Diversity, Most Winners Remain White Men

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The 90th Academy Awards were held Sunday night, where the vast majority of the awards went to white men, despite years of activism demanding increased racial and gender diversity in Hollywood. The awards show came on the heels of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, which rocked Hollywood after dozens of actresses came forward to accuse Hollywood’s most powerful producer, Harvey Weinstein, of rape, sexual assault and harassment that stretched back decades. For more, we speak with April Reign, creator of the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and senior director of marketing for Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit arts service organization. And we speak with Soraya Chemaly, a journalist who covers the intersection of gender and politics. She is the director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary J. Blige, singing “Mighty River” Sunday night at the Oscars, from the film Mudbound. Mary J. Blige made history last night by becoming the first person to be nominated for best original song and for best supporting actress. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the 90th Academy Awards were held Sunday night, where the majority of the awards went to white men, despite years of activism demanding increased racial and gender diversity in Hollywood. The awards show came on the heels of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, which rocked Hollywood, and after dozens of actresses came forward to accuse Hollywood’s most powerful producer, Harvey Weinstein, of rape, sexual assault and harassment that stretched back decades. While the #MeToo movement has shaken Hollywood in recent months, women just won six Oscars this year, compared to 33 for men.

AMY GOODMAN: Some notable winners on Sunday included Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who took home the night’s two biggest prizes—best picture and best director—for his film The Shape of Water. Jordan Peele became the first African American to win for best original screenplay, for his film Get Out. During Sunday night’s awards, many presenters celebrated immigrants, diversity, women’s movements. This is Lupita Nyong’o and Kumail Nanjiani presenting the award for achievement in production design.

LUPITA NYONG’O: Like everyone in this room and everyone watching at home, we are dreamers. We grew up dreaming of one day working in the movies. Dreams are the foundation of Hollywood. And dreams are the foundation of America.

KUMAIL NANJIANI: And so, to all the dreamers out there, we stand with you.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One of the most powerful moments of the night was when rapper Common and musician Andra Day took to the stage to perform the song “Stand Up for Something” from the film Marshall, about the first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall. This is how Common opened the performance.

COMMON: On Oscar night, this is the dream we tell
A land where dreamers live and freedom dwells
Immigrants get the benefits
We put up monuments for the feminists
Tell the NRA they in God’s way
And to the people of Parkland, we say “Ashe”
Sentiments of love for the people
From Africa, Haiti to Puerto Rico.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by two guests: April Reign, creator of the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and senior director of marketing for Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit arts service group; Soraya Chemaly is a journalist who covers the intersection of gender and politics, director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! April, let’s begin with you. You were up late last night—I should say this morning—as you tweeted for Color of Change.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your take on the Oscars last night.

APRIL REIGN: Well, I think that it was an important moment for both the #MeToo and the #TimesUp movement; however, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in front of and behind the camera, when you had several hours of pre-Oscars show with Ryan Seacrest as the host, and yet he has been accused of sexual assault. And so, one wonders why you would even have him standing in front, right? We had Gary Oldman win last night, and there were allegations about him, as well. And so, there’s still a lot to be done, and there seems to be some inconsistency with respect to who is pushed to the side and who is allowed to continue in their regular job.

In addition, with respect to the diversity of the nominees, you know, as you said, Jordan Peele was the first black person and just the second person of color to win best original screenplay in 90 years. And so, the fact that we are still talking about firsts is a problem, because what we know is that representation matters and diversity sells. So, if Hollywood still chooses not to be more inclusive, more diverse, both in front of and behind the camera, they are literally leaving money on the table.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Soraya Chemaly, your thoughts on what you saw last night and, again, that there were many more African Americans and Latinos nominated, but not that many won this year, and also the issue of how many—how few women actually ended up winning awards?

SORAYA CHEMALY: Yes, I think that what we saw was a little bit of window dressing. The Oscar voters remain remarkably homogenous. So, we’re talking over 90 percent male, still more than three-quarters white. And I think we see that reflected in the voting. I mean, I do think it’s notable, for example, there was the first—the best film, the winner, had a female protagonist. That’s the first time in 13 years. And it’s not lost on many of us that she actually was a character that didn’t speak, which is somewhat ironic in the time of #MeToo. So—

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about Shape of Water.

SORAYA CHEMALY: Yes, Shape of Water. And so, I think that there’s been this press. People like April and her organization and the Women’s Media Center and Geena Davis and, you know, many people have been talking about this for a long time. And I think people are really fed up with this idea that change takes time, and it has to be incremental, because none of this is new information. And as April points out, these are profitable films. We know that films that have diverse casts, that have women protagonists, do well at the box office. So it’s really not a matter of the economics. What we’re talking about is really forcing a change in the culture, which remains, I think, recalcitrant.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s really significant that, you know, television knows, the media knows what sells, as April and you were talking about—diversity. You could see that in the performances, in fact, the entire production, this multicultural extravaganza. But if you looked very carefully at it, the people who are actually coming up to win—the people who are representing them were people of color and women, but, one after another, it was white men, you know, in the image of Oscar himself, the award.


AMY GOODMAN: But I wanted to turn to Frances McDormand, who took home the best actress Oscar for her role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, about her daughter, who was raped and killed. That’s what the film is about. But this is Frances McDormand receiving her Oscar.

FRANCES McDORMAND: If I may be so honored to have all the female nominees in every category stand with me in this room tonight, the actors. Meryl, if you do it, everybody else will. Come on. The filmmakers, the producers, the directors, the writers, the cinematographer, the composers, the songwriters, the—the—the—the—the designers. Come on. OK, look around, everybody. Look around, ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed. Don’t talk to us about it at the parties tonight. Invite us into your office in a couple days, or you can come to ours, whichever suits you best, and we’ll tell you all about them. I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.

AMY GOODMAN: “Inclusion rider,” said Frances McDormand. As someone tweeted, the sound you’re hearing right now is millions of people across the world typing the words into Google, “inclusion rider,” because she left it at that. April Reign, explain.

APRIL REIGN: Absolutely. So, an inclusion rider is basically something with—a person of power, typically an actor, an actress, can require in their contract, so that either the cast and/or the crew will also be diverse, or they will walk off the set. We saw that Brie Larson this morning on Twitter said that she will require inclusion riders in all of her contracts going forward. And I think that’s a wonderful idea. Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni and the USC Annenberg Institute—they’re @Inclusionists on Twitter—have been talking about this issue for quite some time. And I’m glad to see it getting some play. It makes sense, because what we know is that, again, the more diverse a cast and crew is, the better the experience for everyone. And we want to ensure that stories are being told that represent the moviegoers and the TV watchers.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you, April, about one of the Oscars, probably one of the most surprising ones. Kobe Bryant winning an Oscar for best animated short stunned a lot of people, especially given Kobe Bryant’s history also with allegations of sexual assault.

APRIL REIGN: Right. Well, you know, obviously, let’s remember who the Oscar voters are, right? They are overwhelmingly white and male and older. The Oscars had—the Academy has said that they are going to double the number of people of color and the number of women by 2020 within its ranks. And we see some of that happening. The last two years, they have had their most inclusive and diverse membership rolls ever. So that’s great. But again, Kobe Bryant is not the first and, unfortunately, will not be the last person who has been accused of allegations, and still, you know, it seems to just brush off him, and he won that award. So, it feels that it’s a bit tainted.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s ask Soraya Chemaly that very question about Kobe Bryant, who was accused by a hotel employee—this is well over a decade ago, in Colorado—of raping her. He even said, in his statement, his agreement with her, that he understands she did not think this was consensual.

SORAYA CHEMALY: Yes. She refused to testify in the criminal case, and there was a follow-up civil case, and part of the agreement was that he would write a letter of apology in which he acknowledged that she did not understand that she was consenting. You know, the description of what happened in the hotel room is fairly graphic. And as April said, I think it’s tainted. And it’s tainted in multiple ways throughout the evening, because Gary Oldman, as well, for example, was described by an ex-wife as having assaulted her while she was trying to call the police. And so it’s difficult to look past these allegations. They’re quite vivid. They are—they took place, both of them, as you say, more than 10 years ago, 2001 and 2003, I believe.

And so there is a sense that the art of the individual, which is a long story in and of itself, trumps any of these actions that they make. And again, I think we really can’t separate that from the industry’s demographics and the fact that this industry shapes narratives around power, consent, race, gender. It’s not like other industries, except maybe news media in that way. It is a culture shaper. And so, it does feel a little bit like a slap in the face when you see these two awards, for example, in a time when this is heightened—there’s heightened awareness about these issues.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to turn to actors and comedians Maya Rudolph and Tiffany Haddish, who presented two awards at Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony.

MAYA RUDOLPH: A few years ago, people were saying that Oscars were so white. And since then, some real progress has been made.

TIFFANY HADDISH: Mm-hmm. But we—when we came out together, we know some of you were thinking, “Are the Oscars too black now?”

MAYA RUDOLPH: But we just want to say, “Don’t worry, there are so many more white people to come tonight.

TIFFANY HADDISH: Mm-hmm, so many. We just came from backstage, and there are tons of them back there.

MAYA RUDOLPH: Tons of them.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: April, your response?

APRIL REIGN: Well, the Oscars are still so white, you know. And I think you make a good point. The Oscars are very deliberate. So, if we remember two years ago, Chris Rock was the host, right? And that was sort of at one of the zeniths of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, and so they seemed to attempt to bring him in to placate people of color.

But what we know, time and time again—this is one of the reasons why I’ve started Akuarel, which is a multicultural media resource directory, so that individuals on both sides of the camera and both sides of the camera—excuse me, both the camera and the curtain, are able to self-identify in various marginalized categories, including race, sexual orientation, gender, age, disability and so on. Very often we hear Hollywood saying, “Well, we want to work with this particular community. We just can’t find them.” And we know that there are talented individuals out there. And so, this will provide the solution to #OscarsSoWhite, because they’ll never again be able to say that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about that, especially because the real jobs in Hollywood—the actors are the window dressing, but there are thousands and thousands of jobs behind the scenes, behind the cameras, and those are the ones that the industry, obviously, would need to open up to, as well, right?

APRIL REIGN: That’s exactly right. Everything starts on the page, and this for TV or film, right? So we need more diverse screenwriters to be able to tell their stories, from their point of view. So, for example, we saw Jordan Peele last night win best original screenplay for Get Out. That’s just one of many examples that are out there. So, Akuarel will allow screenwriters and boom operators and key grips and A-list and B-list actors and actresses to sign up, and then the studios and networks can choose amongst these various categories, so that, for example, we saw last night Daniela Vega, is a trans woman playing a trans woman in the movie that won best foreign film, a fantastic woman from Chile. That was an important moment that I think people got glossed over a little bit.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Jordan Peele, who won the Oscar for best original screenplay for his movie Get Out, a horror thriller that examines U.S. race relations.

JORDAN PEELE: This means so much to me. I stopped writing this movie about 20 times, because I thought it was impossible. I thought it wasn’t going to work. I thought no one would ever make this movie. But I kept coming back to it, because I knew, if someone let me make this movie, that people would hear it and people would see it. So I want to dedicate this to all the people who raised my voice and let me make this movie. … My mother, who taught me to love, even in the face of hate, and to everybody who went and saw this movie, everybody who bought a ticket, who told somebody to buy a ticket, thank you. I love you for shouting out at the theater, for shouting out at the screen. Let’s get going.”

AMY GOODMAN: And we end it there with Jordan Peele. We want to thank April Reign, creator of the hashtag that went viral, #OscarsSoWhite—we’ll see if that changes in the future—and Soraya Chemaly of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, speaking to us from Washington, D.C.

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