Black actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are Oscar frontrunners Sunday, but the reality is that non-whites remain hugely under-represented at the Academy Awards, a new study says.
Halle Berry and Denzel Washington were famously lauded as having made a breakthrough for winning best actress and actor Oscars in 2002, but while there has been some progress in the decade since, it remains too little.
Also that year Will Smith was nominated for best actor, and Sidney Poitier received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, said the study, “Not Quite a Breakthrough: The Oscars and Actors of Color.”
It cited Berry as saying in an emotional acceptance speech a decade ago: “This moment is for... every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
But the study asked: “Did 2002 truly herald a new era for actors of color? ... Our study discovered some progress for actors of color, but we also found considerable continuing racial/ethnic disparity.”
This year has lined up as a relatively strong one for non-white performers.
Davis and Spencer, who play black maids in Mississippi in the civil rights era movie “The Help,” are tipped to take home Oscars for best actress and best supporting actress, respectively, on Sunday night.
And Mexican Demian Bichir was a surprise best actor nominee for “A Better Life” -- which he hopes will raise awareness about the 11 million undocumented migrants in the US. He is up against George Clooney and Brad Pitt.
But the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) study went through all the Oscar nominees and winners since 2002, and compared them with the previous decade and a string of other data including impact on performers’ careers.
They notably found that:
- all best actress winners since 2002 have been white.
- no winner in any acting category during the last 10 years has been Latino, Asian American, or Native American.
- Oscar winners and nominees of color make fewer movies per year after their nominations than their white peers do.
- Oscar winners and nominees of color are more likely to work in television, which is “considered lower-status work.”
- Oscar winners and nominees of color are less likely to receive subsequent nominations.
There has been progress: overall the percentage of non-white nominees in the top Oscar categories has increased from nine percent in 1992-2002, to nearly 20 percent since Berry and Washington’s famous dual “breakthrough.”
“This figure, however, falls short of representing the American public, one-third of which is comprised of people of color,” it said, noting that Latinos were particularly under-represented.
The study came after the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month that the overwhelmingly majority of the 5,765 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are older white men.
Oscar voters are nearly 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male, with blacks at only two percent and Latinos at less than two percent, according to research by the newspaper.
The median age is 62, and only 14 percent are aged less than 50.
“We absolutely recognize that we need to do a better job,” writer-director Phil Alden Robinson, a longtime member of the academy’s board of governors, told the newspaper.
But “we start off with one hand tied behind our back... If the industry as a whole is not doing a great job in opening up its ranks, it’s very hard for us to diversify our membership,” he added.
India’s Resul Pookutty, who won an Oscar in 2009 for sound mixing on “Slumdog Millionaire,” was invited to join the Academy a year later, flying in from Mumbai to attend a new member dinner.
“It means a great deal. More than the pride of it, I feel that my whole fraternity in India has been recognized and honored,” he said.
Academy President Tom Sherak said the organization, which has its headquarters in Beverly Hills, wants to increase diversity.
“We’ve been trying to reach out to the constituency and we’re looking for help... Come to us, we’ll get you in. We want you in. That would help us a lot,” he said.
Frank Pierson, a former academy president who won an Oscar for original screenplay for “Dog Day Afternoon” in 1976, said membership should be based primarily on merit.
“I don’t see any reason why the Academy should represent the entire American population. That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for,” said Pierson, who is still on the board of governors.
“We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”