What’s the value of an Academy Award?
It’s a question I’ve been mulling over ever since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—the revered gatekeepers of America’s film industry—announced the nominees for their 88th Academy Awards ceremony, also known as the Oscars. In a bold feat of tone-deafness (read: overt racism), the Academy chose not to nominate a single black actor in any of their four acting categories—again.
I wasn’t surprised by the Academy’s casual racism in refusing to recognize black performers at this year’s ceremony. Hollywood’s diversity problems aren’t new. The fact that there are still people who blithely question whether black performances are even worthy of recognition speaks to the existence of pervasive bigotry within the institution. It’s why black people (along with other historically marginalized communities) have banded together to create our own institutions to recognize our work: Without celebrations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Awards—and yes, even the BET Awards—daring to uplift black performers in Hollywood, where else could we go to applaud and honor our stars?
What did surprise me was how some high-profile individuals like Helen Mirren, instead of grappling with the issue of the Academy’s accountability to black actors, blamed this year’s lack of black nominees on broader race and power dynamics within the industry. The Academy’s lack of racial sensitivity, she argued, is a symptom of a deeply engrained culture of racial bias that disadvantages black professionals; as a result, one should not read racist intent into the Academy’s nomination decisions.
It isn’t entirely wrong to deflect blame onto the wider industry. As many have rightfully pointed out, diversity in the industry starts in the boardrooms where casting and business decisions get made. But in our hurry to write off the Oscars’s diversity problems as the logical byproduct of Hollywood’s ubiquitous racism, we shouldn’t dismiss the Academy’s distinct responsibility to recognize black artists. More than mere pageantry, the Oscars award ceremony represents an issue of economic justice because of its role as a public evaluation of people in the film industry. Neither the Academy nor the Oscars operates in a vacuum; the Oscars is where Hollywood ascribes value to the artistic and cultural experiences that move and define us, and by proxy the performers whom embody these stories.