By: Bailey Bryant
The Academy Awards came under fire this year for the complete lack of diversity in their nominations for every single acting category. Though this criticism is not new, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag began trending across social media as many stars, including Jada and Will Smith and Spike Lee, announced their decision to boycott the Oscars. A typical response to these complaints and accusations in the past has been to blame filmmakers and producers for failing to cast any people of color in their films. A sort of “How can the academy nominate people of color if they aren’t even acting in any movies?” type of response. The buck is then neatly handed down to movie makers and Hollywood producers and directors in general for their lack of initiative. The cycle of pointed fingers continues however, as filmmakers and producers put the blame on moviegoers claiming that movies with black leads, or any leads with people of color are not popular and do not do well in the box office. Despite the fact that this claim has been recently disproven, given the record-breaking success of Star Wars Episode VII, Creed and Straight Outta Compton, the idea has proven to be true in other instances. The buck is thus passed on to us as movie-goers, or rather, white movie-goers who supposedly do not have the desire or interest to see movies in which people of color star as the lead roles.
White people not wanting to watch ‘black films’ may seem like an outlandish accusation as there have been movies in recent years with black leads that have been incredibly successful, nominated for and won multiple academy awards. Think: 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, The Help. But when we stop to think about the types of roles that certain black actors and actresses are cast in in these films, there’s an alarming common thread. Films with black leads are often telling stories that revolve around or involve some sort of racial issue that is present throughout the entire plot. Movies where black leads are slaves, the help, the sassy sidekick or other cliches tend to be awarded more by The Academy and tend to be more popular as they are seen as movies “for all” by audiences. Meanwhile a study published in 2011 showed that “White audiences perceive romantic films [for example] with minorities as ‘not for them’ because they seldom see minorities in race-neutral romantic roles.”
Ironically black people, along with other people of color, have been watching movies with entirely white casts for years, but do not necessarily feel as though those movies were “not made for them” or are “difficult to relate to.” In order to become invested and interested in a film, audiences must empathize with characters so that they may rid themselves of any disbelief and give into the plot and narrative. The lack of interest in movies with black leads by white audiences could be the result of the inability of the audience to express empathy for the black character and therefore cannot suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the film. This phenomenon has been coined the “racial empathy gap” in multiple sociological studies done by the University of Milano – Bicocca and the University of Toronto Scarborough.
This begs the question: what then is really the root of the lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations? Is it large audiences inability to empathize with actors and actress of color? Or filmmakers and directors hesitation to actually cast them in anything other than niche roles? Or is it simply just that 97% of the academy is white and nearly 70% is male (meaning a “good movie” really only needs to appeal to a very specific demographic)?
As audience members and movie watchers, change can emerge from our own efforts and decisions. Actively watching and paying to see movies with people of color as leads will show movie makers and writers that audiences do in fact like movies with diversity. White audiences have the opportunity to search deep within themselves to try and acknowledge their own racial empathy gaps and make an effort to close them. Empathy, or the lack thereof, plays into larger societal issues such as instutionalized racism and injustice as well, but a good place to start could be with the movies. If audiences began buying tickets to and supporting more movies and trailers with diverse casting, filmmakers will have no choice but to fulfill these demands if they wish to make money. Granted, there are filmmakers and Academy members who will still be unable to close their racial empathy gaps significantly enough to make this sort of change themselves, but the best place to start is with us.