“Why So White?”

A reflection on the lack of diversity in Hollywood and the Academy Awards: Should we as the audience boycott the event too?


The Oscar nominations of Hollywood movies have been the topic of controversy on social media for the past few weeks, housed under the umbrella of #OscarsSoWhite. After the previous year’s disastrous nominations and consequential attention, hope existed for the Academy to realise that inequality has been a factor in the nominations during the past 88 years.

Hollywood—the greatest signifier of mainstream film industry success—carries the responsibility of communicating its vision to a receptive public. Roles for people of colour are highly under- and misrepresented, while the demographic accounts for approximately forty per cent of the United States. Such roles are often built on extreme stereotypes, including lower-class, uneducated, gang member, religious extremist, and heteronormative profiles, among others. People of colour are frequently presented as characters soliciting laughter or sympathy, being featured as comic relief or victims awaiting rescue.

While films are simply fiction, they often shape the public’s perceptions and desires. Predominantly white heroines and heros represent aspirational figures for a global youth, packaged with lifestyles yielded from dreams. Unfortunately, the subconscious impact on people of colour is the desire to take on the role of the privileged, white character—rather than the colour waitress that appeared for a minute. This harmful and disproportionate representation is a projection of Hollywood’s own perceptions of people of colour.

“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out”

Martin Scorse

Voters charged with making nominations are reported to be, on majority, white and male. With a lack of more varied representation on the panel, diversity among nominees will continue to be problematic. However, the issue extends beyond voters. Writers and directors must consider diversity from the start of the filmmaking process, providing roles that accurately represent the courage and artistry found in the community of colour—rather than the stereotypes currently found in mainstream culture.



A lack of representation is harmful to audiences of all backgrounds, effectively boiling down to a cultural education issue. It is proven that racism is a behaviour that is acquired rather than inherited, and as such, Hollywood’s hostile stereotypes risk demolishing the dreams of children of colour searching for idols on the big screen. Instead, the communicated message is one of exclusivity and inferiority.






All Academy Awards nominees from 2015 and 2016.




People of colour are either not nominated or receive awards for stereotypical roles. This is especially damaging as such roles represent a path towards cultural legacies.

Does the lack of filmmakers and scriptwriters of colour receiving funding affect the types of narratives that are presented?

Why is there a need to whitewash films and rewrite histories?

Recent examples include Johnny Depp playing a Comanche Native American in Lone Ranger (2013) and Emma Stone casted as a quarter Hawaiian and quarter Chinese character in the movie Aloha (2015). Last year, a white actor playing Martin Luther King Jr. in an Ohio University production—a rendition of The Mountaintop by Katori Hall—has caused controversy.

“A disservice to not just Dr. King but an entire community…”

Katori Hall

Why are white actors favoured over actors of colour? Even when the specific role is geared towards that of an historic person of colour?

A current example is that of white English actor Joseph Fiennes being casted to play Michael Jackson in an upcoming film. Although the singer specifically addressed this issue before his death and stated that he identifies as black and would not want to be played by a white actor. This also reflects on the issue of colourism, whitewashing and the view of ethnicity existing only as a colour.

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Where am I?

As a woman of colour, the only characters that I see represent me in these mainstream movies are tokenistic and I cannot relate to them. This gives me extremely harmful vision on the place I have in the society. As a Performance Studies student who is extremely interested in making movies and only knowing one woman who has ever won the best director award in the history of the Oscars, is not encouraging my future plans.


Kathryn Bigelow wins best director in 2010, It could have been an African American man for the first time we shouldn't be choosing between the POC and the Woman!

Kathryn Bigelow wins best director in 2010, It could have been an African American man for the first time we shouldn’t be choosing between the POC and the Woman!

But how do we save ourselves and solve the under misrepresentation?

Jada Pinkett Smith has made a statement for people of colour to boycott the oscars.



Boycotting the event by people of all backgrounds could create a terrible image for the Academy and may serve as an effective protest, however, if there are no people of colour at the event, the Awards return to 1929: the year of its first ceremony with no people of colour represented. This protest will create an image we hope the Academy does not want to represent. If nothing changes, does Jada have a point suggesting that people of colour should not beg for attention, but instead rely on MOBO and BET Awards for appreciation? While the awards dedicated to black entertainment are not as mainstream as the Oscars and the Globes, does this matter?



 SNL’s take on white men winning over people of colour


Further Reading:

Hollywood Diversity http://www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/2015-Hollywood-Diversity-Report-2-25-15.pdf

Russell, M.M., 1991. Race and the dominant gaze: Narratives of law and inequality in popular film. Legal Stud. F., 15, p.243.

Whiteman, D., 2004. Out of the theaters and into the streets: A coalition model of the political impact of documentary film and video. Political Communication,, 21(1), pp.51-69.

Vrasidas, C., 1997. The White Man’s Indian: Stereotypes in Film and Beyond