Culture

‘Change Is Not Coming As Fast As We Would Like’: Academy Responds To ‘OscarsSoWhite’

CREDIT: Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPxJordan Strauss/Invision/AP/Graphic by Dylan Petrohilos

The most stomach-churning scene to watch from this year’s Oscar nominations isn’t the face-removal-by-car from Mad Max or the intimate bear-mauling-of-Leonardo-DiCaprio in The Revenant. It’s the nominations themselves, and what they lack: A single acting nominee of color. Last Thursday, for the second year in a row, the Academy filled its 20 acting nomination slots with 20 white people.

As the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag made its grand return to Twitter (What should we call this depressing sequel? 2Oscars2White? O2CARS?), Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith announced — separately — that they would be boycotting this year’s ceremony, and Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first black president of the Academy, issued a statement acknowledging that “change is not coming as fast as we would like.”

Lee won an honorary Oscar last fall — his first, though he’d been nominated for Do the Right Thing and 4 Little Girls — but did not receive any nominations this year for his Lysistrata-inspired comedy Chi-raq. On Monday, Lee sent a letter to the Academy and posted an excerpt from that letter on Instagram.

The note, which begins, “#OscarsSoWhite… Again,” thanks the Academy for recognizing him last November but goes on to say that Lee and his wife would not attend the awards in February. “We Cannot Support It… How Is It Possible For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Category Are White? And Let’s Not Even Get Into The Other Branches.”

He quotes Martin Luther King, Jr., noting that his statement is going public on the anniversary of King’s birthday, and the musical Hamilton (“I WANNA BE IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS”), saying that “People, The Truth Is We Ain’t In Those Rooms And Until Minorities Are, The Oscar Nominees Will Remain Lilly White.”

#OscarsSoWhite… Again. I Would Like To Thank President Cheryl Boone Isaacs And The Board Of Governors Of The Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences For Awarding Me an Honorary Oscar This Past November. I Am Most Appreciative. However My Wife, Mrs. Tonya Lewis Lee And I Will Not Be Attending The Oscar Ceremony This Coming February. We Cannot Support It And Mean No Disrespect To My Friends, Host Chris Rock and Producer Reggie Hudlin, President Isaacs And The Academy. But, How Is It Possible For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Category Are White? And Let's Not Even Get Into The Other Branches. 40 White Actors In 2 Years And No Flava At All. We Can't Act?! WTF!! It's No Coincidence I'm Writing This As We Celebrate The 30th Anniversary Of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's Birthday. Dr. King Said "There Comes A Time When One Must Take A Position That Is Neither Safe, Nor Politic, Nor Popular But He Must Take It Because Conscience Tells Him It's Right". For Too Many Years When The Oscars Nominations Are Revealed, My Office Phone Rings Off The Hook With The Media Asking Me My Opinion About The Lack Of African-Americans And This Year Was No Different. For Once, (Maybe) I Would Like The Media To Ask All The White Nominees And Studio Heads How They Feel About Another All White Ballot. If Someone Has Addressed This And I Missed It Then I Stand Mistaken. As I See It, The Academy Awards Is Not Where The "Real" Battle Is. It's In The Executive Office Of The Hollywood Studios And TV And Cable Networks. This Is Where The Gate Keepers Decide What Gets Made And What Gets Jettisoned To "Turnaround" Or Scrap Heap. This Is What's Important. The Gate Keepers. Those With "The Green Light" Vote. As The Great Actor Leslie Odom Jr. Sings And Dances In The Game Changing Broadway Musical HAMILTON, "I WANNA BE IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS". People, The Truth Is We Ain't In Those Rooms And Until Minorities Are, The Oscar Nominees Will Remain Lilly White. (Cont'd)

A photo posted by Spike Lee (@officialspikelee) on

While accepting his honorary Oscar, Lee addressed the lack of diversity in Hollywood, saying the industry “is so behind sports it’s ridiculous” when it comes to the inclusion and promotion of individuals of color. “It’s easier to be the president of the United States as a black person than be the head of a studio. Honestly, it’s easier to be president of the United States than the head of a studio or head of network.”

Smith sent out a few tweets on Saturday considering how the Oscars treat people of color: Welcome as entertainers and presenters, “rarely recognized for our artistic accomplishments.” She asked: “Should people of color refrain from participating altogether?” (Related: Smith’s husband, Will, was eligible this year for his performance in Concussion, but did not receive a nomination.) On Monday, Smith posted a video to Facebook. Like Lee, she invoked Dr. King’s birthday, and went on to say:

I can’t help but ask the question: Is it time that people of color recognize how much power, influence that we have amassed, that we no longer need to ask to be invited anywhere?… Here’s what I believe: The Academy has the right to acknowledge whomever they choose, to invite whomever they choose. And now I think it is our responsibility, now, to make the change. Maybe it is time that we pull back our resources and we put them back into our communities, into our programs, and we make programs for ourselves that acknowledge us in ways that we see fit, that are just as good as the so-called ‘mainstream.’… Begging for acknowledgment, or even asking, diminishes dignity and diminishes power. And we are a dignified people. And we are powerful. And let’s not forget it. So, let’s let the Academy do them, with all grace and love. And let’s do us, differently.

She ended with a message to this year’s host, Chris Rock: “I will not be at the Academy Awards and I won’t be watching. But I can’t think of a better man to the do the job at hand this year than you.”

Late Monday night, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs issued a statement. “I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion,” she wrote. “This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes.”