Two years ago, the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter campaign drew widespread attention to the failure of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognise outstanding contributions to cinema by anyone who wasn’t white. Fast-forward to 2017, and the Academy appears to have gotten its act together.
After two successive years of white-only acting nominees, this Sunday’s Oscars are markedly different. In the acting categories, six of the nominees are black, and one is a British actor of Indian descent. Three films, Fences, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight, feature black actors as protagonists. In the documentary category, three films that discuss what being black means in the US are up for an Oscar, including the miniseries OJ: Made in America and I Am Not Your Negro.
April Reign is the Managing Editor of BroadwayBlack.com and Editor-at-Large of NU Tribe Magazine. But what she’s perhaps best known for is the viral Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite that she created in 2015 in response to the overwhelmingly white Oscar nominations that year.
Reign says about how the hashtag came about, and discusses the recent efforts by The Academy to diversify its ranks in order to ensure a less biased voting process.
What made you come up with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite?
April Reign: I created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in January 2015 because I was frustrated and disappointed with the lack of representation of people from marginalised communities in the Oscar nominations both in front of and behind the camera.
Your hashtag started a movement but it also triggered some virulent angry responses. Two years later, how do you reflect on what you unleashed?
AR: What I unleashed? I didn’t unleash anything. I started a conversation about diversity and inclusion within the entertainment industry and I think that there has been significant progress since then. Nearly 600 — exactly 683 — new members of the Academy were invited, which was its largest and most diverse class ever. We have seen that there are significantly more discussions on issues of diversity and inclusion. People like JJ Abrams, a very famous American producer, are actively seeking to work with more people of colour. More foundations, workshops, emerging film opportunities are available now that weren’t two years ago.
The awards ceremony for the Oscars is this Sunday, February 26. This year there are many more nominees who are black. Do you see this as a victory? Or do you think it’s tokenism?
AR: To describe a nomination as tokenism is to discredit the hard work of the actors, actresses, and filmmakers nominated. They earned their nominations just as all the other nominees did. Tokenism is a racially charged word. I’d be surprised if you found any in the black community or progressives who would view the nominations that way.
Seemingly in response to criticism, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has invited more women and people of colour to join its ranks. Yet it’s still mostly white, and mostly male. So can we call this progress?
AR: Well, sure, because it’s better than it was before, right? But still the Academy even with 683 new invitees is 89 percent white and 73 percent male and the average age is in the early 60s. So it’s better than it was before but there’s more work that needs to be done. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs has said that she intends to double the number of people of colour and the number of the women in the Academy by 2020 and I hope she meets her goal.
Some members of the Academy lost their voting status and became “emeritus” members. They say the Academy is replacing racism with ageism, and that the problem is with the studios, not the voters. What do you think?
AR: The change in the voting structure is due to work within the industry. I think it’s a great idea. People who are not firmly ensconced within the film industry may have their votes changed to provisional status. I’m hoping that it means that they will become more energised within the film industry once again because obviously there’s a reason why they were — they are — a part of the Academy in the first place. They can act as wonderful mentors to newer members of the Academy.
US President Donald Trump is someone who has made divisive comments and policy about Mexicans and Muslims, for example. Do you think he’ll also start picking on other minority groups?
AR: Trump has talked about every marginalised community: He made fun of the disabled reporter. He [took out an accusatory ad during] the trial and prosecution of the Central Park crime. He refused to rent to African-Americans back in the 1970s. He’s been accused of sexual assault against several women. No stone has been left unturned with respect to his bigotry and misogyny. So it’s not just Mexicans and Muslims; it’s just about every marginalised group you can think of.
You’ve practised law for over 20 years. What made you decide you wanted a break from that to become a writer and editor-at-large?
AR: I was bored and unhappy in my [then] position and did not have an opportunity to express any creativity or feel passion in my work. So I was very blessed to be able to walk away from a profitable long career and do something that was much more satisfying.