In the words of Neil Patrick Harris, “Welcome to the 87th Oscars. Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest—sorry, brightest.”
A sentiment that rings true as four of the most prominent awards of the evening, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Best Actress in a Supporting Role all went to white winners. Of the 24 categories, there were 17 in which people, not films, were able to be selected as winners. Twenty-two individuals won Oscars, yet four of them were people of color.
African American winners of the last 10 years include three Best Actor winners, one Best Actress winner, one Best Actor in a Supporting Role and four Best Actresses in a Supporting Role.
In an article published by the LA Times in 2012, it was revealed that of the 6,000 people that make up the Academy, around 94 percent is white, close to 77 percent is male and approximately 90 percent is over the age of 40. These statistics reveal an overwhelming underrepresentation of young people, women and non-white races.
These 6,000 people are responsible for the selection of all Oscar nominees, in a seemingly quite complicated process detailed by Entertainment Weekly. Each member of the Academy belongs to a branch such as directing, writing, cinematography, etc. In the initial selection of nominees, a member is only allowed to vote within their branch (actors vote for actors, directors vote for directors) and to list up to five names, which is the number of nominees in each category with the exception of Best Picture.
From these ballots there is a “magic number” that is devised—the total number of ballots, divided by the number of nominees plus one—this number must be reached for a nominee to be considered “official.” The nominee with the fewest first choice votes in a given category is eliminated. The magic number drops as ballots are voided and this process continues until the set number of nominees remains.
Once nominees are chosen, the selection of winners is simple. The entire academy is able to vote once for each of the categories, preferably ones they understand and have seen the films in. The one with the most votes wins.
The predominantly white membership of the Academy exists at a time in society when underrepresentation of minority groups persists in many spheres, not just Hollywood. In the United States Senate, there are two African Americans and four Hispanics. In the House there are 43 African Americans and 33 Hispanics. These numbers are not representative of the population as a whole. Membership in the Academy that selects Oscar winners is not representative of the population that has valid opinions about Hollywood and films.
At a time when so many social groups are fighting for equality, the Academy cannot remain oblivious to the validity of their perspectives and expect to maintain their cultural and artistic influence over society.