April Reign sent out her first — the first — #OscarsSoWhite tweet over a year ago. It was January 15, 2015, and that year’s Academy Award nominees had just been announced. Zero actors of color received nominations. It was the first all-white Oscar slate since 1995. It was an outrage.
And maybe that would have been it for the hashtag and the outrage it sparked, had this year’s Oscar slate not excluded performers of color from all 20 acting nominations. Again. Again. The same year that brought audiences Creed, Beasts of No Nation, Straight Outta Compton, Chi-raq, and more, was the second year in a row that the Academy failed to recognize the work of even a single actor of color. So #OscarsSoWhite trended, and then it transcended: It became the cultural shorthand for the overwhelming, massive lack of inclusion not just within the Academy’s members and on Oscar stages but throughout the entire film industry.
Reign had given the movement a catchphrase, a viral identity, that leapt off Twitter and into newspaper headlines and magazine covers. Shortly after Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs released a statement expressing that “change is not coming as fast as we would like” and that the Academy would be making changes to how it selects its members and, by extension, Oscar nominees, I spoke with Reign by phone. We discussed the hashtag’s beginnings, Reign’s thoughts on the Academy’s pledge to act, and why inclusion at the Oscars is so vital.
Take me back to how this all started for you. Do you remember writing your first #OscarsSoWhite tweet?
Well, the very first tweet was on the day that the [Oscar] nominations were announced last year, January 2015. So there were a lot of conversations at that time about the lack of diversity and inclusion in film, and we saw that play out by [Academy president] Cheryl inviting 300 new members into the Academy last year, and I know that she had talked with Spike Lee in the fall, I believe.
#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair. 😒
— April (@ReignOfApril) January 15, 2015
And then this year we see that the hashtag, unfortunately, is still very relevant. It’s experienced a resurgence. We continue having important discussions about representation in film. And I think we saw this year more celebrities and public figures speaking out on the issue. We received the first statement from the Academy, and the second indicating that they want to change things.
What’s your take on the Academy’s response? What are your thoughts on the changes they plan to implement within their ranks?
I think it’s a good first step. I am encouraged that the Academy has indicated that one must be active in the film industry within the last decade in order to be able to vote. But I think that the Academy still has a way to go. They’re going to increase the diversity of women and people of color in the Academy, and that sounds great, but we’ll see how it plays out in practice. There is only one woman who has won the best director award, ever, in over 80 years. Saying they’re going to double that number to two, that doesn’t fully solve that problem. And that goes for a lot of marginalized communities. The only Asian-American who has ever won for best director is Ang Lee.
As you’ve seen, some individuals in the industry — Spike Lee, Will and Jada Smith — have called for a boycott of the Oscars. Even when they aren’t using that word, they’re essentially getting that point across: Making a public statement about not attending or viewing the ceremony. Do you think that a boycott is an effective means of protest for something like this? Is there a way in which that compounds the problem by decreasing what little representation people of color will have at this year’s show?
I’m not using the word “boycott” at all. That’s a word the media thrusted into the conversation. It doesn’t completely reflect what’s happening. I think most of the actors and actresses are not using that word either. I think everyone needs to make their own decision, whether we’re talking about public figures or regular moviegoers who want to see themselves on the screen. Last year, we engaged in counter-programming. I live-tweeted Coming to America. And perhaps, in part, due to that counter-programming and the discussions propelled by the hashtag, the Academy experienced its lowest ratings in the last six years. So we will again be engaging in counter-programming and invite anyone who wants a more diverse and representative slate of films to join us in that. (Note: After our interview, Reign announced this year’s counter-programming: “All those who are frustrated with the lack of representation of marginalized communities in film to join her Sunday night as she live tweets the coming of age movie The Wood via Netflix.” Another counter-programming option: Comedian Hannibal Buress is hosting a free Justice for Flint event on Sunday evening; directors Ava DuVernay (Selma) and Ryan Coogler (Creed) will be among the high-wattage attendees.)
The Oscars are a high-profile event, so I understand why they’re a natural target for this kind of attention and criticism. Do you think, though, that it’s ever a distraction to focus so much on the Oscars, when the problems with inclusion in Hollywood start so much earlier in the pipeline? The Oscars are really the last step, honoring work that’s already been greenlit, funded, produced, and so on.
The Academy has been around for over 80 years now. I don’t see it going anywhere. So for better or for worse, as of right now, it is still considered the pinnacle in film. Everyone wants to be recognized for their achievements, and actors and actresses are no different. There’s definitely a space where we can celebrate our achievement in awards shows — like the NAACP image awards, the ALMA awards, the GLAAD awards — because we’re not represented by the Academy, and still critique the reasons why the Academy is not more inclusive, and why those films don’t exist, period. Because the onus can’t be fully on the Academy, because they can only nominate films that have been made. So the onus must also be on Hollywood, and on the studio executives, to ensure that they are thinking from a broader perspective when determining who should play particular roles in films, and who should tell those stories behind the camera.
While there are plenty of people within the industry, and people outside of the industry who just love movies, who care deeply about whether or not the Academy addresses the lack of inclusion in its ranks and in its awards, there’s also a sentiment that, maybe the awards aren’t that important, or paying attention to the awards gives them an importance they don’t deserve. How would you make the case for being so invested in who is systematically excluded from the Oscars?
Because the Oscars still matter. Because people who win Oscars, very often, have an easier way in Hollywood. Having an Oscar nomination or Oscar winning before your name carries some weight, for better or worse. So that means the actress who wins may be able to command a larger salary for her next picture, the screenwriter may have an easier way of getting his script read. So the Oscars aren’t going anywhere. Because we know that, they need to get better.
I’m sure it’s hard to step outside of something like #OscarsSoWhite, which has really transcended Twitter and the idea of trending topics and has become a nearly universal cultural shorthand. Do you have any ideas as to why that language, that term of art, has resonated so strongly and gained this much traction?
I can’t really answer why people have gravitated toward it. I am humbled that they have. I think [the phrase is] easily understandable. And the fact that it’s factual, it spurs conversation on both sides. Whether one wants to talk merely about the lack of representation or if there’s an underlying issue there, people understand, on its face, some of the tenets — not all — but some, of the hashtag itself. So I think it’s just been sort of a motivator to propel a very important conversation, not just in Hollywood but, based on the interviews I’ve done, worldwide. So we see German actors and actresses talking about diversity in German film, we see Idris Elba talking about the lack of diversity in British film and TV and that being one of the reasons why he left and came to the states. It’s not a lack of talent, as he said, it’s a lack of opportunity. So I’m gratified that I was able to create something from which these very important conversations could start.
Has anyone from the Academy ever reached out to you to discuss #OscarsSoWhite? Do you think they should?
I think that remains to be seen. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss diversity and inclusion with anyone, someone within the film industry, a corporation, because I still have some tangible ideas, generally, about how to increase representation of people of color in marginalized communities. I think the wonderful thing is, I’m not part of the film industry. So I can sort of move through these conversations and have a larger perspective on these issues. I’m a moviegoer, just like millions of others, who was frustrated and spoke out about it. And thankfully, things are moving in the right direction.
I would like to see journalists talk in a more active tone, instead of passive. Twitter didn’t create the hashtag. I actually created it. But I don’t think it was necessary for the Academy to reach out to me to do what needed to be done. I have spoken out on this issue enough that it was clear what the underlying problems were. I would welcome a conversation with Academy members if they would like to have it. But this movement, if you want to use that term, was not just me. It was thousands of people worldwide, which I think, necessarily, put pressure on the Academy to make these changes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.