“The Oscars are like my Super Bowl,” says April Reign, the creator of #OscarsSoWhite, over the phone. “I pre-game and watch the red carpet, try to see all of the films nominated beforehand.” The social media movement is not, as some have suggested, canceled.
Over the last two years Reign, who works as the managing editor of Broadway Black and editor-at-large of NuTribe Magazine, has become a critical voice in advocating for more diversity—not only in who’s nominated for the Oscars on and behind the screen, but in the film industry as a whole. In 2015, she unintentionally sparked an ongoing conversation around the uber-whiteness of the Oscars when she tweeted “#OscarsSowhite they asked to touch my hair” while watching the 88th Academy Awards.
“That’s one of the beautiful things about #OscarsSoWhite,” she says. “I was just a regular movie-going person who saw a problem and wanted to address it.”
The hashtag went viral. That year, there were only three people of color nominated in the award show’s top for categories: Ava Duvernay (Selma), Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman). There were no nominations for female directors.
In 2016, the Academy Awards told basically the same story and the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag started trending again. There were few actors, actresses, or filmmakers of color nominated, and Eddie Redmayne was nominated for playing a transgender woman while films like Tangerine were overlooked. Women were nominated and won in seven different categories (some sharing awards with other men) including for best picture, but there still wasn’t a single woman nominated in the best director category.
Last week, Mashable went as far as “canceling” #OscarsSoWhite after predicting that “as many as half of the 20 acting nominees would be people of color.” (Read: black people.)
In the two years since Reign’s social media movement, Hollywood has been slowly listening. Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee opted out of attending the Oscars earlier this year, and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs inducted nearly 700 new members: 46% women and 41% of them were people of color.
This year, there have been a handful of films from black filmmakers or starring black actors that have been named as contenders for Oscar nominations, from Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight to Fences starring Viola Davis and Denzel Washington. While this has resulted in rave coverage in the mainstream media, it has also oddly resulted in the media pegging these films to #OscarsSoWhite—even when they’ve been in production years before the social movement was introduced. Last week, Mashable went as far as “canceling” it, claiming #OscarsSoWhite was over after predicting that “as many as half of the 20 acting nominees would be people of color” (read: black people). (Note: The publication later issued an apologized and decided to part ways with the film reporter Jeff Sneider as a result.)
Unfortunately, this is where Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite movement gets misunderstood. It’s not just a fight for more black representation, but an intersectional fight for more representation on the part of all marginalized communities, from gender to race to sexual orientation. I wanted to know what she thought about the movement being “canceled” so I caller her to talk about the state of the film industry, what she thinks can be done to create room for more representation, and why she thinks television is ahead of film.
Last week, a film reporter from Mashable decided that #OscarsSoWhite was canceled, and later apologized. When do you think the #OscarsSoWhite movement can really be canceled?
I can’t make that call. I don’t see it on the horizon. There are too many underrepresented communities that still need to hear their voices and see their stories onscreen. 2016 was a step in the right direction, but I think that there’s a misconception about the opportunities that are available. There have been some really great performances by black actors and actresses this year but #OscarsSoWhite isn’t about black folks alone. It’s about all traditionally underrepresented communities. Where are the Latino and Latina actors and actresses, where are their opportunities? Where are the Asian American actors and actresses?
We see things like Tilda Swinton, who is nearly translucent, playing in Doctor Strange. We see Matt Damon [in Great Wall], a white male going into a country of a billion Asian people and playing the savior of the wall. We see Scarlett Johansson in Ghost In The Shell, which is completely against the genre for that film. There has been a significant amount of appropriation of Asian and Pacific Islander culture.
#OscarsSoWhite is not about affirmative action or a quota system at all.- April Reign
One year can’t exactly reverse 87 years of history, especially when all marginalized communities have yet to be represented.
Yes, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Don’t get me wrong, what we have is fantastic. But, we still don’t have a rom-com involving two people from the LGBTQIA community. We have [Sir] Patrick Stewart playing a disabled superhero but we don’t have a disabled actor or actress playing a disabled superhero. The distinct differences we see in the opportunities men and women have as they get older [are important]. Those are the types of things that #OscarsSoWhite speaks to, not just race.
I think actors and actresses are starting to speak up about it. Sir Ian McKellen, who is a brilliant actor, said earlier this year that he has watched straight male actors get up on stage and win awards for playing gay men, while he’s had to tuck his acceptance speech in his pocket. And who has a better frame of reference for that for him?
Even if every media outlet isn’t “canceling” #OscarsSoWhite, a lot of them are suggesting all the films with people of color in them are a result of the movement. What are your feelings on that?
I had anticipated this all year long, to be honest. #OscarsSoWhite is not about affirmative action at all or a quota system. It really was my concern that when performances and films got nominated this year the argument was going to be, well, it only happened because of #OscarsSoWhite. But that can’t be true. If we talk about who the people are nominating the films, they’re still overwhelmingly older white males.
It does do all of them a disservice to say that they are only being highlighted because of #OscarsSoWhite, because they are quality works in and of themselves. Moonlight was still going to be a great film. #OscarsSoWhite is all about the quality of work and making sure that more people have the opportunity to showcase it. I think what we’re seeing is that people are more open to actively supporting these films, which is great, and that’s the way it should be. But, do not take anything away from the filmmakers and the actors who have put their blood sweat and tears into these films long before I created #OscarsSoWhite.
It’s very presumptive for these straight white men to make determinations about what is or is not going to work for the movie industry.- April Reign
Birth of a Nation was a film that was pegged to #OscarsSoWhite right after the Academy Awards were proven to be really white once again. It was set up to be the “film of the year” at Sundance, so much so that reporters decided to overlook the filmmaker’s past. But, then when it came into theaters it sort of tanked.
Birth of a Nation had issues from the very beginning for a number of reasons—mostly because of who was attached to it, and then because the film had some historical inaccuracies. But it was the people at Sundance [who legitimized it]. And who, again, are we talking about? Studio executives who are white men, deciding that this was going to be the film of the year. We see that again with Mashable, a white male writer and a white male editor deciding that #OscarsSoWhite is over because they’re predicting all of these black people are going to get nominations. It’s very presumptive for these straight white men to make determinations about what is or is not going to work for the movie industry as a whole and for the movie-going audience, more importantly.
There’s also this argument that technically, the Oscar wins represent the population percentage of people in America.
Their argument goes, well in the last 15 years 10% of the nominations went to black people, black people are 13% of the population, so what’s the problem? It’s relatively equal, the thinking goes. But until this conversation no longer merits discussion because my children, and you, and everyone else can go and see themselves reflected on the big screen, on stage, on the small screen with all of your complexity and nuance and beauty…One year couldn’t possible change that much. Even with the Academy inviting nearly 700 new members into its ranks this year, it’s still 89% white, 70% male and the average age is still 60.
It’s still not enough.
And the Academy is just one facet of it. The Academy can only nominate quality films that are made. The real onus begins with studio heads and what they agree to greenlight.
It starts on the page, so it’s about what the screenwriters, and what actor or actress are in his or her minds when they’re creating these stories. If you’ve got in your head that your protagonist is going to be a tall leggy blonde in her mid-20s, then that means that Fan Bingbing and Eva Mendes have absolutely no shot to get an audition. The frame of reference from the very beginning has to be broadened
“I’m not going to wait for a seat at your table, I’m going to create my own mansion and put my own table in it.”- Ava Duvernay
I know that you came up with a 10-point plan that was published on The Guardian earlier this year. Aside from the Academy Awards adding new members, what other concrete changes have you seen, or would you like to see?
We’re seeing some of that happen now. Warner Brothers has an emerging filmmakers program, which it didn’t have two years ago, and it’s specifically working to find more filmmakers of color that they can work with on a regular basis.
J.J. Abrams has come out very publicly and said that at Bad Robot they are actively seeking filmmakers of color to work with on their projects. More of that needs to happen. More discussions need to happen about who can play particular roles. There needs to be more support systems for filmmakers behind the camera, young screenwriters and young producers and directors.
I think we’re seeing some of that in non-traditional media as well. Matthew Cherry, who is a filmmaker, shot an entire film on his iPhone and it premiered at South By [Southwest] this year to rave reviews. There are ways that very talented people are finding around the industry. I think that streaming services are also providing opportunities in creating their own series and shows. But it is up to us not only to make noise, but also to make our own [work]. Ava Duvernay said: “I’m not going to wait for a seat at your table, I’m going to create my own mansion and put my own table in it.”
So far, television seems to be ahead of film in terms of diversity, both onscreen and behind the screen. Why do you think that is?
I think film is much harder to do logistically. The entire process from getting screenplays to getting the movie agreement and production and distribution, it takes much longer and it involved a lot more money than TV does. We see that with Netflix series and other series like Fresh Off The Boat and black-ish. It’s easier to do because they are smaller bits of entertainment, it’s easier to involve more people.
A film is finite; once you have your principals that’s pretty much it. Everybody else is a background character. On TV, you can have guest stars from different communities every single week depending on the type of show that it is. Shonda Rhimes does that brilliantly in all of her shows, every single marginalized community is represented in at least one doctor [on Grey’s Anatomy]. That’s America and that’s what we should see more of.
Also, if you look at who’s in charge the head of ABC now is a black woman. If you look at the studio executives in Hollywood they are still older white males, so that the people that are seated at that table and making the decisions about greenlighting are typically white males, even if they aren’t older. TV is not perfect. But, it’s an easier way to consume different communities faster than what we see in film.
Why do you think Twitter has worked so well as a medium for your platform?
It works because of the power of social media. My hashtag or anyone else’s hashtag can literally travel the world. I’ve done interviews with folks in New Zealand and Germany; people in Brazil are talking about the lack of diversity in their films and people in France are doing the same. It’s a strong platform for being able to reach a lot of people. Why would you not use it as a medium to have discussions about important topics?