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Actors of Color Should Divest From 'The Academy'

Refuse to submit your work to The Academy for consideration. Promote other, more equitable film festivals and award shows.

By Nylah Burton

On Monday, the 2020 Academy Awards nominations were released. As we have come to expect by now… The Academy fumbled it, badly. Continuing in the tradition described by April Reign’s 2015 hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite, almost no people of color, queer or gender-diverse people were nominated. 

If the Academy dispensed those golden statues based solely on artistry, we would have seen an array of nominations — Best Actor/Actress, Best Picture and Best Director, Best Supporting Actor/Actress, Best Costume Design, etc — go the creators and stars of films like The Farewell, Just Mercy, Dolemite Is My Name, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Us, Hustlers, Little Women, and Queen and Slim

Instead, we somehow fell through a time portal back to 1970s New York City, where dimly-lit films about dangerous, tragically misunderstood white men — The Irishman and The Joker —  or the neurotic, dispassionate relationship between two insufferable upper-class whites — Marriage Story — were proclaimed potential “Bests.”

Recommended: Why Are Awards Shows Still Even a Thing?

And when it comes to foreign films starring people of color, like Parasite or Slumdog Millionaire (2008), the Academy loves refusing to nominate the actual actors and actresses in the film. I suspect it’s because they can’t completely ignore these outstanding films — Parasite was close to perfection — but they are threatened by the idea that actors and actresses from other countries might start to eclipse Western superstars. Nominating and awarding the films but not the actors allows them to claim diversity while shirking the call of equity. And frankly, equity would mean films created by people of color and queer people would dominate almost each and every category. Because we’re just that good. 

So if the Academy is inherently racist and queerphobic, and shows no signs of reforming itself anytime soon, what does that mean for creators and actors of color? Do they remain silent and continue trying to seek validation from these institutions, praying that one day it will be their time? Do they speak out, while still participating in the theatre of it all? Or do they divest?

I say divestment is the best option. If the Oscar’s discernment has proven to be basically useless, then stop assigning worth to the awards they give out. Refuse to submit your work to The Academy for consideration. Promote other, more equitable film festivals and award shows. Or work together and start your own. 

Recommended: PARASITE, The Horror of Poverty and The Importance of Class Solidarity

But it can feel frightening to discard The Academy. Although Parasite’s director Bong Joon-ho points out that The Oscars are a “very local” festival, their proximity to American hegemony and whiteness makes their stamp of approval seem incredibly valuable. Creators might wonder at the potential cost of open rebellion of opting out.

But truth be told, the shallowness of the Academy can never dim the light of genius art. Our favorite films may not have been nominated. The ones that have been nominated may not win. But the impact they have had on individuals and communities cannot be negated by the Academy’s willful ignorance. A little gold statue does not confer artistry, nor does it confer meaning. 

The Academy isn’t interested in awarding or recognizing art. Their primary concern is directing consumers to the films they want to succeed, and consolidating power among a small, privileged group. And sometimes, people of color and queer people can participate, as a treat, but only if our stories fit the narrative they want to promote. 

Overall, a white, cisheteromative institutions that don’t serve us. The Oscars wants to stay white, and straight. So let them.

Nylah Burton is Denver-based writer with bylines in New York Magazine, ESSENCE, Bustle, and The Nation. You can follow her on Twitter, at @yumcoconutmilk

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