Diversity and the Oscars

This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me- Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett and it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.

I remember as if it were yesterday, these moving and powerful words delivered by Halle Berry on the evening of her 2001 Best Actress win for her role in Marc Forster’s “Monster’s Ball.” After 73 years of The Academy Awards, Berry was the first (and incidentally the last) woman of color to receive this honor. While some may feel this accomplishment lifted the perceived glass ceiling in Hollywood, The Academy continues to face an image issue regarding its exclusivity—raising the question, “When will America’s diverse, movie-going audience be reflected in the nominees for the film industry’s most prestigious awards?”

This issue doesn’t live exclusively within the African-American community. Hispanics, Asians and other non-whites have seen disproportionately low representation in Hollywood’s most elite club. To date, a total of nine non-white actors have won The Academy’s top honors: five African-Americans, one Hispanic, three Asians.*

With this perspective, I was disappointed to learn The Academy had nominated only two actors of color for this year’s top awards: Best Actor Nominee, Denzel Washington for his portrayal of the heroic but troubled airline pilot in Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” and Best Actress Nominee, Quvenzhané Wallis- the young, breakout lead star of the Sundance Film Festival favorite, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Our Sapce EbonneNow, I’m not going to bore you with the typical concerns around the lack of diversity within The Academy- the 5,765 members that vote for the Oscars (94 percent are white and 77 percent are male). Nor, am I going to discuss the many challenges minority screenwriters and directors face while trying to get their scripts and movies lifted from the early stages of production. My concerns around the narrow vision of “Greatness” as historically defined by The Academy is the subliminal message this sends to aspiring actors, actresses and writers of color. My mind goes back to my three year-old self when my Mother had registered me for my first ballet class- an activity I had asked to participate in almost as soon as I learned to talk. While on our way to my first lesson I asked my Mom (who was born and raised in the segregated South before and during the Civil Rights Movement) if she had taken ballet when she was a little girl. Her response was simple yet poignant: “No, little black girls couldn’t do that when I was your age.” Lucky for me, American culture had changed and the idea of a little black girl taking ballet classes wasn’t so foreign in the early 1980’s. I would be inspired by the likes of Judith Jamison and Debbie Allen and go on to have a successful dance career spanning nearly 30 years.

Ultimately, a small portion of the population may have the psychological wherewithal to be a “groundbreaker”; many of us need to see people like ourselves achieving in a shared area of interest to be able to dream that type of success for ourselves. I hope The Academy realizes the film community will benefit, becoming culturally richer and stronger, once it begins to regularly recognize storytellers from diverse backgrounds. Future film visionaries, representative of all ethnicities, watch the Oscars and look to The Academy for inspiration and acceptance. I look forward to the day when speeches like Halle Berry’s are no longer necessary and the symbolic door she references, loses its spring and remains open for all.

*Minority Top Oscar Winners:
Best Actor- Jose Ferrer- “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1950); Yul Brynner- “The King and I” (1956); Sidney Poitier “Lilies of the Field” (1963); Ben Kingsley- “Gandhi” (1982); Denzel Washington- “Training Day” (2001); Jamie Fox- “Ray” (2004) Forest Whitaker- “The King of Scotland” (2006)

Best Actress- Halle Berry- “Monster’s Ball” (2001)

Best Director- Ang Lee- “Brokeback Mountain” (2005)

Cover Photo Source: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Ebonne Just is an Account Supervisor at SJG. Originally from Omaha, NE- Ebonne received her BA in Marketing Communications from Columbia College Chicago. In her spare time she enjoys reading, cooking, listening to old records and supporting the Nebraska Cornhusker football team.