Five years ago, #OscarsSoWhite rewrote the narrative in an industry with entrenched disparities. Here, Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay and other insiders tell the story as they lived it.
"Congratulations to those men."
A month ago, exactly three seconds after she'd announced a list of Oscar nominees for best director that excluded women, writer and actress Issa Rae appended those four words, an indictment sheathed in a ribbon of praise: "Congratulations to those men."
The official announcement and its condemnation, delivered in almost the same breath on a live telecast, say a lot about Hollywood in 2020. The industry is in the clutches of an extremely public identity crisis, in which the fresh, multicultural image it aspires to (Rae and her co-host, John Cho) is undermined by the observable evidence (the list of nominees).
Before #OscarsSoWhite, a social justice campaign that began five years ago last month, the crisis had been contained. The fact that 92 per cent of top film directors were men and 86 per cent of top films featured white actors in the lead roles — a pattern dating back decades — did not often dominate entertainment news, least of all on Hollywood's biggest night.
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As former academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, one of more than a dozen people who spoke to The New York Times for this history of the movement, said recently, "That was the industry: You'd scan around the room, and everyone looked the same. But people didn't get what was going on. Members would say, 'We're professionals; we just vote for who's best.'"
On January 15, 2015, the academy awarded all 20 acting nominations to white actors for the first of two consecutive years, inspiring April Reign to create the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. Reign, then a campaign finance lawyer and pop-culture-obsessed contributor to a loose community of black Twitter users, was hardly a Hollywood power broker.
But her words, coming on the heels of #BlackLivesMatter, erupted like a big bang, creating the conditions for a constellation of social movements — from #WhiteWashedOUT for Asian representation to Time's Up for gender parity — that intensified media attention on the industry's treatment of historically marginalised groups.
In the movie business, nothing is feared like bad press, and by 2016 timeworn incentive structures had begun to tilt in favor of increased diversity in front of and behind the camera. Films like Get Out, "Black Panther, Coco and Crazy Rich Asians drove a multicultural gold rush at the box office as well as the Oscars, where a record 13 winners of color took home awards in 2019 alone.
But as this year's nominees suggest, the old establishment has not been displaced overnight. Only one performer of color — Cynthia Erivo of Harriet — was nominated, and female directors of top-rated films, like Greta Gerwig of Little Women, Lorene Scafaria of Hustlers and Lulu Wang of The Farewell, were left out.
And yet it would be inaccurate to say that nothing has changed since that morning five years ago when Reign logged on to Twitter, or that recent developments have been undone. In edited excerpts below, filmmakers, awards watchers and academy members tell the inside story of how what began as a three-word hashtag forced an insular, US$42 billion industry to change course.
At 8:30am US Eastern Time on January 15, 2015, the nominees for the 87th annual Academy Awards were announced live on television from the Beverly Hills headquarters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
CHERYL BOONE ISAACS (president of the academy, 2013-17): The president gets to see the nominations about an hour and a half early, and as soon as I saw them, my heart sank.
APRIL REIGN (creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite): My kid was upstairs getting ready for school, and I was watching in my family room as I got ready for work. It struck me that there were no people of colour nominated, so I picked up my phone. "#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair." It happened in seconds.
DAWN HUDSON (chief executive of the academy): I had a very good idea what was going to come next.
REIGN: I checked my phone at lunch, and it was trending around the world: "#OscarsSoWhite they wear Birkenstocks in the wintertime." "#OscarsSoWhite they have a perfect credit score."
FRANKLIN LEONARD (founder of the Black List, a platform for unproduced screenplays): Her stroke of genius was that it was so economically put from a language perspective. And because there was basically no counterevidence, it demanded a certain attention.
SPIKE LEE (director, BlacKkKlansman): When black Twitter gets on your black ass ... ooh, it ain't no joke.
BARRY JENKINS (director, Moonlight): At a certain point, people just get fed up.
AVA DUVERNAY (director, Selma): It was a catalyst for a conversation about what had really been a decadeslong absence of diversity and inclusion.
LEONARD: It was the year after 12 Years a Slave won. We had been led to believe that something substantive about the culture had changed. But then, just as in the transition from Obama to Trump, it turned out that maybe it hadn't.
BOONE ISAACS: It said a lot not just about the academy but about America and where its bases of power are.
REIGN: It could've been a bunch of different things — there were no women in the directors category, there were no visibly disabled people nominated — so #OscarsSoWhite has never just been about race. It's about the underrepresentation of all marginalised groups.
At the centre of the original #OscarsSoWhite debate was Selma, DuVernay's film about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Thought to be an early awards favourite, it was ultimately nominated only in the best song and best picture categories, with DuVernay and her star, David Oyelowo, left unrecognised.
LEONARD: There was this attempt to say that Ava was just making a pro-black movie that was all fiction, and it was really LBJ that led the civil rights movement.
JENKINS: I'm sorry, but the idea that Selma wasn't an artfully made film was bull.
DUVERNAY: I knew that I wouldn't get director. But I really felt strongly that David would get actor. That really startled me and disappointed me.
In a "Brutally Honest" Oscar ballot published by The Hollywood Reporter in February, an anonymous Oscar voter called the decision by the cast of Selma to express support for #BlackLivesMatter at the film's New York premiere "offensive."
LEONARD: There was this pushback like, "How dare these people speak up so aggressively." It was the #AllLivesMatter response, but for movies.
DUVERNAY: Studio people had been whispering to me, "You shouldn't have done that." But I would do it all again. If you cannot be respectful of our alignment with that cause, with that protest, with that rallying cry, then there was nothing that I wanted from you anyway.
"A shifting tide"'
On January 14, 2016, all 20 Oscar nominations in the acting categories went to white performers for the second year in a row, elevating the stature of #OscarsSoWhite. (The next morning, a front-page headline in the Los Angeles Times asked, "Where's the Diversity?") At an emergency meeting a week later, Hudson, Boone Isaacs and the academy's board of governors approved ambitious targets for a membership initiative known as A2020, aiming to double the number of women and ethnically underrepresented members in four years.
REIGN: One time you could call a fluke. Two times feels like a pattern.
BOONE ISAACS: We had already been working toward increasing diversity and inclusion, but we went from first to fourth gear.
HUDSON: A crisis happens, and it becomes a catalyst for accelerated change.
BOONE ISAACS: The statistics showed that our membership was 94 per cent white and 77 per cent male. People would say to me that it wasn't on purpose, and I would ask them, "Are you sure?"
LEE: Cheryl Boone Isaacs really made it her mission to open things up so that the voting body looked more like America.
LEONARD: It gave me a little bit of hope.
Later that month, The Hollywood Reporter published letters from academy members who opposed the changes. The new rules, these members said, implied that "all of us are racists," were "capitulating to political correctness" and "lessened" the academy's value as "a measuring stick for excellence," among other objections.
BOONE ISAACS: I do have my share of hate mail for ruining the organisation.
RUTH CARTER (costume designer, Selma and Black Panther): They were afraid of one drop of black blood.
REGINALD HUDLIN (film director and producer, 2016 Academy Awards ceremony): That kind of stuff is encouraging to me. If you don't hear from those people, you're not making a difference.
DENNIS RICE (member of the academy's public relations branch): I think we have to create an environment that supports diversity within our industry, but I'm colour- and gender-blind when it comes to recognising our art. You should look purely and objectively at the artistic accomplishment.
BOONE ISAACS: Are you kidding me? We all have biases. You just don't see it if it doesn't affect you.
HUDSON: We needed to make sure the membership represented a wide swath of the community and that it was looking at a wide swath of films.
LEONARD: I think what happened with the academy forced conversations among decision-makers across the industry. What are we doing here? Why are we making the decisions that we're making? And oh, if we continue to make the decisions that we're making, we will be called out about it.
This month, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California reported a 17 per cent increase in 2019 in the number of top films with people of colour in a lead role since the year #OscarsSoWhite began.
PETER RAMSEY (one of three directors of Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse): You could see the tide shifting a little from the same few recognisable white stars to movies that were in tune with younger and more diverse sensibilities.
LEONARD: All of this corresponds with a generation of filmmakers — Barry, Ryan [Coogler], Ava, Dee [Rees], Jordan [Peele] — who came up in the industry over the last 10, 15 years and knew that they had to be that much better to have the same chance that their white male peers would have.
RAMSEY: The animation world has always been really homogeneous, but I've seen more and more people of color and women come to prominence. If you look at the slates of places like Pixar and Sony and Netflix, that stuff is translating to real change.
JENKINS: It wasn't about promoting diversity for diversity's sake. It was about correcting a blind spot. The artists of merit have always been there.
On February 28, 2016, Oscar host Chris Rock delivered a litany of jokes about the academy's lack of diversity on its own stage. But one bit, in which small Asian children portrayed "dedicated, accurate and hardworking" accountants, sparked outrage. A representative for Rock said he was unavailable to speak for this article.
REIGN: I don't think that went as well as they'd hoped.
LEONARD: It was in poor taste. We can't demand respect for a community that we're in if we're not willing to afford that same respect to other communities who have their own struggles.
HUDSON: I don't think Chris meant to offend, but it wasn't in any way appropriate.
HUDLIN: I trusted Chris to do what he does; I wasn't there to supervise or manage him. But I was caught off-guard. The last thing I would ever want is to offend anyone. The only thing you can do is say that you're sincerely sorry.
'"Feast or famine"
On February 26, 2017, the night of the first Oscars of the A2020 era, more than 20 people of colour were in contention, including seven in the acting categories and Jenkins for Moonlight. The winners included Jenkins (as a screenwriter) and Mahershala Ali for Moonlight and Viola Davis for Fences. After a stunning mishap in which the award was erroneously given to La La Land, Moonlight also won best picture.
REIGN: 2017 felt different.
RAMSEY: The door was widening.
JENKINS: I don't know if the numbers were shifting things, but I do think perspectives were broadening. #OscarsSoWhite had put the fact that so many people were being overlooked under a microscope. If Moonlight had come out three years earlier, I'm not sure how many people would have picked up that screener.
LEONARD: On the one hand, maybe the new members changed the trajectory. But on the other hand, maybe, like 12 Years a Slave, it was just that much better than everything else.
CARTER: It didn't feel like it was the black vote or the diversity vote; it felt like it was the right vote.
At the 2018 Oscars, four people of color were nominated in the acting categories. Peele, nominated three times for Get Out, won for original screenplay. In 2019, Ramsey, Carter and Lee were among a record-breaking seven African American winners at a single ceremony.
RAMSEY: It was 2019 when things seemed to really be maturing. The feeling I had was, "Oh, I think this is real." It felt solid.
LEE: The one thing I regret is that there's not a picture of us all together holding our Oscars. Because it was bananas. It was crazy up in there.
JENKINS: I was getting a glass of Champagne, and I looked up at the monitor, and I think Hannah [Beachler, production designer for Black Panther and Moonlight] was onstage. I was like "Oh [expletive] — has anybody white won an Oscar yet?"
CARTER: It felt amazing to be there with Spike and to be able to thank him from the stage for giving me my start [on School Daze in 1988]. Later, I was just a few rows back while he was getting his.
LEE: If it were not for April Reign's hashtag and Cheryl Boone Isaacs being president — the work of two sisters — I would not have an Oscar.
REIGN: I don't believe in having one good night and then declaring, "Everything is great." The pendulum swings back and forth, as we've seen.
This year's nominations include just one actor of color (Cynthia Erivo), and eight of the nine best picture nominees feature overwhelmingly white casts. (Bong Joon Ho's Parasite is the exception.) Still, the academy is on track to reach its diversity targets by this summer, according to a spokeswoman. In total, it has grown by more than 3,000 new members since 2016, a nearly 50 per cent increase.
CARTER: The 2020 nominations are shameful. I love Scarlett Johansson [nominated for both Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit]. If she had played two very different characters in the same film the way that Lupita Nyong'o did in Us, might that have been deemed worthy of a nomination?
LEE: After last year's ceremony, I said, "It ain't gonna be like this next year!" It's always feast or famine with us.
DUVERNAY: The majority of that voting body has not changed. It's still 84 per cent white and 68 per cent male. From a voting perspective, even doubling the number of women and people of colour doesn't really tip the scales.
REIGN: If you look at the demographics of this country or the demographics of moviegoers, we're nowhere near true representation.
LEONARD: You could have a year when literally every nominee is of colour, and that would still not mean that the systemic problems that exist in the industry have somehow evaporated overnight — any more than Obama being elected president means that we've solved the problem of racism.
REIGN: We have to start way before the awards conversation. What kind of stories are getting greenlit? How are the characters described?
JENKINS: I think we have to allow that the academy can have divergent tastes every year while still keeping the volume up and pointing things out. How can you have six Asian films that have received five or more nominations, and not one of them has ever been honoured in the acting category? We just have to keep the conversation going and keep making movies.
LEE: This thing's not gonna turn around overnight. It's been a battle from the beginning: Hattie McDaniel, Sidney Poitier. And why should we think that struggle is not a part of our existence?
BOONE ISAACS: There's always yin and yang, there's always push and pull — always. But I am a big believer that you stay on point, you stay on goal, and you keep moving.
RAMSEY: There's too many other ways to get entertainment now than the tiny number of movies that get official academy recognition each year. #OscarsSoWhite is an alarm bell. It's saying, "Keep up with us, or we're going to leave you behind."
Written by: Reggie Ugwu
Photographs by: Keith Negley and Patrick T. Fallon
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES