Commentary: Oscars continue to exclude people of color

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(Katie Tomosiunas / The DePaulia)

(Katie Tomosiunas / The DePaulia)

April 4, 1967, a year to the day before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the congregation of the Riverside Church in New York, New York. The speech, titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” is notable for its staunch opposition to the Vietnam War.

“There comes a time,” King said early on in the speech. “When silence is betrayal.” Modern case and point: The Academy Awards.

Last week, when the nominations were announced, there was a well-reasoned outcry against the Academy. No people of color were nominated in the top seven categories, though not because there were no minorities starring in films last year, but because the academy — which did not learn from a similar outcry the year before with “Selma,” and other movies made and starring minorities — glossed over it. Representation and recognition? Not on the ballot.

This is not to say that some of the movies nominated were not deserving, but the stories told in them are ones moviegoers have heard and seen countless time and all of them starred  mostly white casts.

“There are definitely some movies that are very deserving, but it’s very whitewashed. This has been a problem for the past two years,” Mike Horky, a former DePaul student, said. “Hollywood has been about white actors for so long that there’s not a big enough community for people of color. They haven’t been able to show themselves and their talents.”

Displaying talents and actors is not something that’s difficult if you’re willing to watch. “Creed,” which has gotten a lot of buzz since it hit theaters, stars Michael B. Jordan as Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, and Sylvester Stallone, reprising his role as Rocky Balboa, in a movie that shows off Jordan’s talents as an actor, talents that were first noticed in “The Wire.” “Creed,” which received critical acclaim, was awarded no nomination in the lead actor category.

“Straight Outta Compton,” which told the story of NWA’s formation, only received a nomination in the best original screenplay category. The script was written by two white people.

“Concussion,” starring Will Smith depicted an issue that many are beginning to care and hear about: the effects of concussions on athletes. “Beasts of No Nation,” starring Idris Elba as a gruesome warlord, shows what some children in war -torn parts of Africa are forced to do if they want to survive.

There was nothing for these films. Silence. Crickets. This is not a new position.

“We’re in a tight spot if we’re looking to Hollywood for any kind of deliverance. Winning for best film doesn’t mean that black perspectives are being respected,” Amor Kohli, associate professor and program director of African and Black Diaspora Studies, said. “Representation can be about the numbers without being about true recognition. Numbers don’t always equal the goal for diversity.”

Black people were not the only ones left off the nomination list, however. Asian, Latino and indigenous actors, as well as stories about them,  are also missing.

Further than that, trans people, nonbinary and other people part of the LGBTQIA community are missing, too. “The Danish Girl,” which stars Eddie Redmayne as a trans woman, had an opportunity to find a trans woman and have her play that role, to provide representation to young trans people in a media sphere that does not have enough of their voices, but instead hollywood took the usual route.

For minorities  who hope to one day be part of Hollywood, and perhaps win their own Academy Award — directing, producing acting or involved in some other way — the Academy Award snubs are a little too close to home.

“After a year of blockbuster black cinema, it was definitely hurtful to see the Academy still seeing the art made by people of color as less than,” Charia McDonald, a junior digital cinema major, said. “There is nothing wrong with seeking recognition from your peers.  There are so many amazing filmmakers of color doing great work, yet these people saying “Create your own” aren’t seeing and supporting that. The world is bored of the same old white, heteronormative narratives.”

The Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA found that, though last year was considerable in the amount of films portraying or directed by minorities, they are still underrepresented at a statistic of more than two to one. The same goes for women, exactly two to one and heterosexual characters account for 88.9 percent of characters in our media.

Perhaps this goes back to the people in the C-Suite — those at the top, film studio heads, are 94 percent white and 100 percent male.

On TV, the representation and recognition has gotten better. Roles, some stereotypical and some not, have grown over the past few years, and Netflix’s original shows typically have a diverse cast filled with people whose entire characterization is not based on the fact that they are a person with a modifier.

The Academy could have done better, and perhaps next year it will. Horky said that ultimately it “comes down to renovating the structure of the Oscars themselves. We can sign petitions but in order for Hollywood to change it has to be internal.”

That internal change is perhaps long overdue.

Whether or not progress comes next year is unknown, but what is known is that the silence of the academy and lack of nods to diverse films that show minorities in roles not solely based on what makes them a minority will not be met with silence.

Some have called for a boycott of the Academy Awards — the hashtag #Oscarssowhite has circulated the internet — but the boycott does nothing for people whose stories are already not seen.

“With anything that involves marginalized people being outraged, there is going to be push and pull. If you’ve never experienced what it’s like to not have something, unfortunately  you’re going to think others are overreacting. I know that my life would have been different had I seen more girls like me on TV or in my books,” McDonald said.

“When the world centers around you and your narrative, how could you find anything wrong with that? This goes beyond cinema and it’s an issue that starts with the self.”