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Editorial: Oscars are only one part of the minority exclusion problem

The recent unveiling of the 2016 Academy Award nominations – which, for the second consecutive year, resulted in zero minorities being represented among the 20 acting spots across four categories – has revived the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and outcry.

And for good reason. Only once from 2002 through 2014 had the same thing occurred, with 28 black actors and actresses nominated over that time.

To go from that to two straight years of African- Americans left completely off the ballots for the first time since the late ‘90s is more than enough to raise some eyebrows and cause changes, which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is in the process of undertaking to ensure more diversity amongst those who ultimately cast ballots for Oscar winners.

That’s all well and good, but the outcry, the issue and the focus have been misdirected from the start, and it begins with this reason: it simply isn’t the Academy’s job to recognize and reward diversity in film, but to praise those who give the best and most memorable performances, whether the actor be White, Black, Hispanic or otherwise.

How are they supposed to be captivated by such an actor who is Black, Hispanic, Native-American, even Asian when there are so few performances to select from? If filmmakers aren’t casting minority actors, but are instead starting to lean on white actors and actresses, how can they expect to be visible at awards ceremonies at the climax of the movie season?

To be sure, there were notable snubs from this year’s nominations, subjectively speaking, including Benicio del Toro for his performance in “Sicario,” or Idris Elba’s turn in the highly-acclaimed Netflix drama “Beasts of No Nation,” or Will Smith for what many are calling the best performance of his career in “Concussion.” That’s just how it is at the Oscars though; there are snubs every year, because the pool of talent is that big.

Should more minority actors and actresses be represented from that pool? Absolutely. But the Academy can’t be expected to nitpick from the few – it has to start with casting directors in ensuring diversity for their pictures. They’re the ones with the stories to create and the characters to incorporate; once Academy members are screening films for their ballots, they’re screening the completed work. How can they be expected to recognize a performance from a minority actor or actress at that point when they are so few and the talent so widespread?

It certainly is long overdue that Academy protocol is overhauled to ensure its members don’t disproportionately fit the mold of a very specific demographic; according to the Chicago Tribune, voting members of the Academy are 94 percent White, 77 percent male and 64 percent over the age of 60.

While those are ridiculous numbers that in themselves should call for an immediate review of procedure, it’s not like it has prevented minorities from being recognized for their performances in the past, as previously stated.

From 1929 through 1980, there were a grand total of 14 acting performances by Blacks recognized via nomination. It would only take 12 years for that number to double, setting off a new era for African-American presence in film. So while many decry the Academy for not recognizing diversity in film, they need look no further than the last few decades.

Instead, the problem lies at the filmmaking level. According to a 2013 study by University of Southern California, minority actors made up just 23.6 percent of speaking characters in the top 100 grossing movies of 2012, with Blacks nearly half of that number.

The #OscarsSoWhite movement is right in one regard; the issue is systemic. But the root isn’t in Oscar voters, but those behind the cameras, sitting in the director’s chair and writing up the scripts.

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