Oscars Boycott Sends Powerful Message To Hollywood About Race

| by Nik Bonopartis
Idris Elba in "Beasts of No Nation."Idris Elba in "Beasts of No Nation."

Sean Penn lectured about demonizing drug cartels. Leonardo DiCaprio got the word out about blood diamonds and issued grand proclamations about environmental issues from the deck of his personal yacht. George Clooney famously credited himself and his Hollywood peers for talking about AIDS "when it was just being whispered" and championing civil rights "when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters."

So how can it be that some of Hollywood's best black actors and directors are boycotting the Oscars this year, the second year in a row to feature an all-white slate of Academy Award nominees? If Hollywood is as progressive as its biggest actors like to think, how can the entire movie industry be so tone-deaf and out of sync with the American public?

This year's list of Oscar nominees includes Matt Damon for his turn as an astronaut in "The Martian"; Eddie Redmayne for his role as one of history's first acknowledged transgender women; and Saoirse Ronan for her compelling role as an Irish immigrant in "Brooklyn."

Conspicuously absent are "The Wire" alum and "Creed" star Michael B. Jordan; the immensely talented Idris Elba, who earned critical praise playing a brutal warlord in Netflix's "Beasts of No Nation"; and Will Smith, for his role in "Concussion," playing a doctor who uncovered the truth about brain injuries in football.

You won't find any black actors among the list of nominees for best supporting actor and actress, nor were any black directors nominated for their work on the other side of the camera. The only nominated movie with a majority black cast is "Straight Outta Compton," the biopic about seminal hip hop group N.W.A., but that film's been relegated to the "Original Screenplay" category.

"At the Oscars ... people of color are always welcomed to give out awards ... even entertain, but we are rarely recognized for our artistic accomplishments. Should people of color refrain from participating alltogether? People can only treat us in the way in which we allow," Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, wrote in a Facebook post that had racked up more than 142,000 Likes.

For the second time in two years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- the governing body behind the Oscars -- finds itself backtracking and apologizing, making promises to be more inclusive in the future.

"The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership," Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs wrote. "In the coming days and weeks we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond."

The thing is, it's already 2016. This shouldn't be an issue these days, especially in a town full of people who like to pat themselves on the back for pushing a progressive agenda.

A promise to be more inclusive next year won't deflect criticism this time around. Pinkett-Smith and Spike Lee, who directed 2015's "Chiraq," made headlines when they said they're boycotting this year's Oscars. Even Chris Rock, who is hosting this year's Academy Awards, made his feelings know.

"The #Oscars," Rock tweeted. "The White BET Awards."

No one's asking for a movie industry version of affirmative action, and you won't find anyone seriously campaigning to include Tyler Perry movies in the "Best Picture" category.

But by boycotting the Oscars, Lee and Pinkett-Smith are making a powerful statement.

"Begging for acknowledgement, or even asking, diminishes dignity and diminishes power," Pinkett-Smith said. "And we are a dignified people and we are powerful."

And as Lee and Elba pointed out, the problem manifests at the Oscars, but begins with the movie studios and the people who decide which movies get the greenlight and which movies don't.

“We need a different approach towards risk," said Elba, whose roles have ranged from starship captain in "Prometheus" to ruthless drug lord in "The Wire."

"The story of Netflix is that risk-taking delivers audiences. Let’s be honest. Too often [studios] look at diverse talent, and all they see is risk. Black actors are seen as a commercial risk. Women directors are seen as a commercial risk. Disabled directors aren’t even seen at all. I used to fit tires in Dagenham [in Essex, England]; now I make films in Hollywood. And the difference between those two lives comes down to one single word -- opportunity.”

Sources: Fox News, New York Daily News, ABC News, IndieWire / Photo source: Netflix via IndieWire