It may still be early, but 2016 has already been important for diversity, inclusion, and activism in the entertainment industry.
The year was off to a controversial start when Oscar nominees were announced on January 14. No minorities were selected for awards by the Academy in any of the four acting categories for the second year in a row. Last year’s Twitter’s hashtag was #OscarsSoWhite. Now it became #OscarsStillSoWhite.
For years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) faced criticism that its 7,000-plus voting members were mostly older white males.1 On age: in 2012 the median was 62 with just over a tenth of the membership under 50.2 On race and gender: in 2016, nine-tenths of the voters were white and three-quarters male; African American votes made up only 3% of the academy, and Asians and Latinos just over 2%.3 As African Americans make 18% of the US population and Hispanic and Latino Americans amount to 17%, the race and gender divide was apparent, and in effect drowned the argument made, among others, by former Academy president Frank Pierson that “[the Academy] represents professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”4
In truth, the Academy had tried to address diversity before. The perception that the Academy was “an elitist group with no concern or regard for the minority community and industry”, as black actor and director Bill Duke had said in 2012, was entrenched.5 It was not sufficient, it seems for the Academy to have elected Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an African-American woman, as President in July 2013 –– the first African-American to hold the office. Boone Isaacs got to work quickly, and one of her most most notable pro diversity initiatives was the removal of a long-standing cap on the number of AMPAS members. 400 new applications were solicited, many of them for younger members and people of color. Moreover, In January, as the controversy hit full throttle, Boone Isaacs announced that the Board of Governors of AMPAS would aim to double the number of women and diversity members by 2020.6
The Academy, of course, is not an island. Even supporters of change recognize that many of the issues raised this year were triggered by events outside the film industry, notably the conflict over Black Lives Matter. The juncture was rife with strife and the Academy was forced to look into itself and be more proactive. Like music, of course, film is multicultural and makes a point of addressing diversity often in the storyline. When Oscar nominee The Weeknd says that that almost every movie we see is inspired by diversity, we can agree.7 But the marquis event of the industry is the Oscars and this year’s public relations nightmare forced a necessary review of procedures.
A month after the Oscar controversy erupted, The Los Angeles Times headlined its report on the Grammys with “Diversity Takes the Win with Moments that Crossed Race, Age and Gender”. It suggested that the big winner of the night was not anyone in particular, but “the music industry’s full-court press promoting cultural diversity.”
A highlight was the performance of rapper Kendrick Lamar, who won 5 awards out of 11 nominations for his album “To Pimp A Butterfly”. Issues in society, rather than mere entertainment, seemed to drive the message, and his stage entrance, as part of a chain gang,8 highlighted the black male incarceration problem in the country: as of mid-2013, there are a total of about 745,000 black men behind bars for a population 19 million black males, an incredible 4%.9 Lamar’s songs “The Blacker The Berry” and “Alright” in practice also became the unofficial soundtracks for the Black Lives Matter movement. And although “The Blacker The Berry” deals with hypocrisy, Lamar only performed the first verse, where “the narrator is in full righteous-fury mode, drawing power from his heritage to confront white America.10 For the third act of his performance, Lamar addressed Trayvon Martin’s death at the hand of neighborhood vigilante watch member George Zimmerman. Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly”, was released last March to much critical acclaim and in his review for Entertainment Weekly, Kyle Anderson noted the crossover of genres in the album, “embracing the entire history of black American music in the process —not just chest-pounding rap but throwback soul, churning jazz, Sly Stone-style riot funk, front-porch blues, and highly politicized spoken word.”11
Taylor Swift, of course, was not one to skirt the greater picture either. Swift became the youngest Album of the Year winner when she received the award at age nineteen for her 2008 album Fearless, and she made history again this year when she became the first woman to win Album of the Year twice, with 1989. When she took the stage, she spoke on the theme of female artists and their many challenges.12
As well, a notable aspect of this year’s Grammys was its focus too on better access of resources for disabled individuals. Stevie Wonder made the point well by asking the audience, and its 25 million viewers at home, to read a statement in Braille—which obviously they could not. He concluded: “We need to make every single thing accessible to every single person with a disability”.13
A week before the Grammys, Beyonce’s politically charged performance of her new song “Formation” became a talking point of Super Bowl 50, an event that attempts to stay as uncontroversial as possible. “Formation” was released for free just one day prior to Super Bowl. The song celebrated black pride (“I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”), and the Super Bowl performance certainly referenced too racism and police abuse. In the video release with “Formation”, Beyonce appears submerged on top of a sinking police cruiser. There is a wall backdrop for a while that that reads “Stop Shooting Us”, an image that reminds one of the Trayvon Martin’s killing.14 Beyonce may have been unable to evade the responsibility she has as a role model in the black community, and this was not a year where entertainment on its won would have carried the day for her there—she would have likely been criticized for apathy. But it seems that the artist was concerned too about police violence against African Americans and the legacy she was considering for her daughter.15
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The music and film industries are no strangers to events that affect us deeply as a society. Creative talent, moreover, cannot but reflect the times. In the rear view mirror, 2016 could be an inflection point, a year when politics, arts, and society came together in unexpected ways. As well, there seems to be an expectation by the public that the complexity of life today cannot be drowned in simple entertainment. There has to be context, and while music and film can be made for their own sake, a more involved and outward looking artist, or creative director, is now back in favor. In short, commercial calculation does not seem to be completely at odds with a passion for activism. As conversations about society heat up, entertainment may well become less bland.
By Corliss Lee