Earlier today, Nielsen released preliminary reports on viewership of the 88th annual Academy Awards — and the results are telling. Overnight ratings for the ceremony declined to an 8-year low. For those of us that campaigned around asking citizens to tune out, this is heartening news. It is a significant decline and should send a clear message to the Academy and to movie studio executives that we will not tolerate discriminatory practices whether they impact what we see on screen or what takes place behind the lens. Though we don’t take full credit for the decrease in viewership, certainly one would have to assume that we were effective and part of the decline. As the brilliant Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.” To those that mocked the idea of a tune out, it seems that the joke was on them.
Yesterday, National Action Network (NAN) and I held a demonstration and marched in LA protesting the industry’s continued lack of inclusion and the ongoing disrespect of ticket goers who support Hollywood with their dollars but have been marginalized on many levels. As I stated yesterday, we are not dictating who should or who shouldn’t win an Oscar, but if you are locked out of the process, then what we must come to terms with is addressing systemic exclusion. And this isn’t just about Black actors not being appropriately recognized for their talent; it is about the larger notion of what projects get funding for production, who gets hired behind-the-scenes, what stories are told and from whose perspective, what roles are available for Black and minority actors, how people of color can secure producer and director positions, how those who actually live in the Los Angeles area can get jobs in the industry and more. NAN and those who gathered with us yesterday wanted to send a clear message to Hollywood: It is beyond time for a change. We also held simultaneous demonstrations in New York, Washington, Cleveland, Atlanta and Detroit.
There are studies after studies that indicate that people tend to hire those that are either in their circles or those that look like them. If a majority of those in power in Hollywood are White, they tend to green light projects by those they know, those that are referred to them in their own sphere of influence, or those that they “can relate to.” This has reverberations on many levels. Not only does it impact what movies are made and how people of color are depicted on a mainstream level, but also who gets a foot in the door even in an entry-level position. Access gets you more access, so if we truly care about shifting the cycle of inequality, this systemic racism in pop culture cannot continue.
In 2016, it is absolutely insulting that we are still grappling with such issues. This isn’t 1950s America, and the movie going audience that spends its hard earned money to support films is comprised of a significant proportion of people of color that are simply sick and tired of being disenfranchised. The Black buying power in general is forecasted to reach $1.3 trillion by the year 2017. That tremendous power can no longer be ignored, and Hollywood must do its part to make changes immediately. It’s not enough for the Academy to try and double the number of women and minority members by 2020; we need to see real substantive moves that give more employment opportunities and opportunity in general on every level to people of color.
Actors and artists will often tell you (even in acceptance speeches) that there is perhaps no greater honor than being recognized for your work by your peers. When Black, Latino, Asian and other minority actors are shunned out of the Academy nomination process for the second year in a row, what message does that send to them, to the acting community, to the actors of tomorrow and to society at large? This is a very serious part of the problem and why so many boycotted last night’s ceremony, but it is not the only issue. If we want to equalize Hollywood, then we must address the deeper challenges behind-the-scenes as well. Until we do, the Academy and studio execs can expect that declining viewership will be the new norm because the people that support your films are just tired of being snubbed.