Artistic Recognition is Deeper Than #TeamJada or #TeamJanet
There has been quite a bit of buzz about the 2016 Oscars. Yet it’s a trend that is all too familiar. Academies and institutions that are responsible for awarding and rewarding creative and performing artists have consistently and largely ignored the contributions of people of color in the arts. Although our platform explicitly addresses music, our readership is comprised of artists of VARIOUS fields… fields that often fail to acknowledge our work.
Merely a quick Twitter search of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite reveals the yearly trend of exclusion and erasure. The 2016 nominations were no different. Despite the release of films such as Straight Outta Compton, Concussion, and more, the amount of Black actors nominated for the acting categories was… nil. In the days following announcements for the 2016 Oscar nominees creators, artists, actors, and performers spoke out in various ways about the glaring lack of racial / ethnic diversity represented in this year’s show. Media personality, vlogger, and actress Franchesca aka Chescaleigh responded with a satirical nail tutorial sketch that represented what she refers to as the “ombre beige”-ness of the Oscar nominees:
Jada Pinkett-Smith posted a video that called for the boycotting of the 2016 Oscars, stating: “Begging for acknowledgement, or even asking, diminishes dignity and diminishes power. And we are a dignified people and we are powerful…” Not long after, Spike Lee also offered commentary on not attending the awards show this year. He remarked that he never used the language of boycotting, and that other artists and performers were free to do whatever they planned to do… but that he and his wife would not be showing up to the 2016 Oscars. The responses got even more nuanced when actress Janet Hubert (who is well known for her work as Aunt Vivian on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) crafted a response video to Jada Pinkett-Smith & Will Smith.
Themes prevalent in her critiques of Jada Pinkett-Smith’s call to boycott were:
- Perhaps misplaced focus on the Oscars when there are other important sociocultural and even personal battles going on (“It ain’t that deep”… “You know some of us have got mortgages to pay, we got bills to pay, we have bigger shit to worry about than the Oscars”)
- The reality that boycotting the Oscars may result in actors’ careers being jeopardized… particularly those who aren’t making as much money as the Smiths
- The “irony” of asking for solidarity in this moment when many of the Smiths’ productions include close friends and family (View the original video below):
Since then, popular media and social media has been ablaze with the opinions and thoughts about how to… yet again… address the erasure of performing artists of color.
None of this is simple. There are arguments that Black actors, actresses, and even media consumers shouldn’t expect recognition from institutions whose voting boards and leadership is primarily White. There are arguments that shows, such as the Oscars, are key for issues of representation: We are in the field. We contribute to that field. So, we should be recognized in that field. There are arguments that boycotts will assist, and then there are arguments that we should be strategizing in other ways. #OscarsSoWhite (the 2016 “edition”) holds varied interpretations AND perceived solutions, for which, I argue, that we have made too simplistic with quick-critiques.
I wanted to know what were the benefits of a boycott (if any), what were the cons, what did artists stand to gain or lose from such a call to action. Did people really care? Was it “not that deep”, as Hubert stated? I wanted to know where the roots of the problem really were and why not many people were talking about the processes for voting and filtering scripts and productions. And I also noticed quite a bit of silence on the accountability and expectations of artists who were NOT people of color and their role in all of this. So, I wanted to get perspectives from both artists AND scholars who studied the arts to drill down to some of the moving parts inherent in this debacle. By taking a look at the different angles, we might gain a perspective on this debacle that goes past sensationalizing news and fly-by-night solutions. What it seems to boil down to is a further understanding of four things: 1) personal economics for working artists, 2) voting processes 3) industry economics and production pipelines, and 4) the expectation on and for White artists and actors. (All quotes are shared with permission).
Dr. Birgitta Johnson, ethnomusicologist and musician, explains: “The first step is to EDUCATE the general audiences of concern on EXACTLY how Oscar nominations are made and how voting is done. Changing voting procedures does NOTHING if the largest voting body of the Academy is predominantly white and male…”
In a clip on Good Morning America, Spike Lee references similar sentiments. If we aren’t at the voting table, then the process of getting to nominations is more than tenuous. On another hand, if the process and procedure itself has no accountability, then perpetuation and erasure is likely to continue.
Personal Economics for Working Artists:
Dr. Johnson expounds,
“Boycotts impact people in different ways. When I boycott the Oscars…I still get to go to work in the morning… However, my friends who are PAs, writers, musicians, tech crew folk, etc. whose largest check of the quarter will come from working the 2 weeks of the actual Oscar’s show won’t be able to walk into ‘the office’ and get union scale Hollywood pay because they boycotted. The connections needed to get booked on other award shows this season, may not materialize because they boycotted the Oscars and missed key face time with casting and booking agents/connects. They won’t be able to put the coveted Academy Awards show on their resumes and so when they are pounding the pavement next quarter to get work on another show, film project, tv set, etc., they may loose work because someone next to them did work the Oscars. The buzz on who the next independent and small studio reps and projects coming down the pipeline may not be shared on the picket line…”
Chicago-based actress, Katherine Lofton, further illustrates this point and gives voice to the questions that those in the industry are asking:
“The ones who are boycotting and sitting on millions (definitely plural) have the production companies to pay these crew members and working actors if those 2 groups decided to boycott. But will they do this? Have they done this? Those 2 groups simply cannot afford to boycott. What’s the plan? Do they expect folks to do a sit out and SEE what happens or are the Smiths and Mr Lee (so forth) going to take the time to hire them during this time?
Or as Ms. Hubert said, “Some of us have got mortgages to pay”.
One of the very deep nuances that scholar Candace Laughinghouse points out is that personal economics matter and they are apparent even in the video that Jada Pinkett Smith posted to mobilize a boycott.
“Art imitates life, right? That piece of art (the large African Elephant tusk in the background) bothered me… I know I’m one of the few to be bothered by it, but I think it matters to when an Empire is calling on the people barely making ends meet to now protest. It’s problematic. They couldn’t go another route – and not to police their mode of protest – but if we’re going to have an honest discussion about who gets to conveniently say when to boycott, we have to sit with that”.
In short, a call to boycott must also sit with the lived realities and intersections of both race AND class. If that’s true, then where might artists and performers of color make an impact? Perhaps another answer lies in understanding industry economics.
Kimberly Peeler-Ringer holds 10+ years of experience in media production prior to moving into the field of theology. From this experience, she states, “Boycotting means little. If we want to make our voices heard when it comes to motion pictures, start with economics. Black folks buy close to half of movie ticket sales”.
If we think about the movies, shows, and more that are doing well… it is because of the numbers at the box office. Understanding industry economics allows artists / performers of color to craft deeper solutions to media erasure. But what about White actors, actresses, and artists? While it might be openly affirmed that diversity is a priority, the nominations aren’t showing this as truth. Is this a problem that only artists of color should be expected to fix? Absolutely not.
The expectation on and for White artists and actors
“None of this means anything without white allies. Yes, WHITE allies. Julia Robert’s campaign to get Denzel a best actor nomination AND win taught us a lesson that we have YET to absorb 15 years later. We can’t wait until the older members of the Academy die. The younger, more progressive artists of the organization must start to stand up and make their voices heard, put their names and bodies on the line too…” – Dr. Birgitta Johnson
Actor, writer, and Music Makes Me Happy rep Joshua Nelson offers up the importance of striking a balance between expectations for White artists, voting bodies, etc. and the need for people of color to affirm their own work simultaneously:
“The movers, shakers and voters of Hollywood predominately reflect a white male perspective. Which is not their fault, but it is however their obligation to play a hand in the evolution. While I recognize the vain attitude (actors / artists of color) hold towards awards and recognition, it actually still matters. Film and media represent and should reflect who “we” are while the awards should project our worth collectively. It’s America’s voice. No one can deny the weight that this platform holds. Its embedded in American History. It not only informs future generations of the current times but what we deem worthy (i.e. Oscars, Golden Globes, etc.). While I hate the notion of divide and conquer, a boycott of this nature could possibly serve as a wake-up call for all races that are in the entertainment industry and pursuing such. So yea, boycott indeed! BUT then we must look at ourselves and realize that we arent putting as much weight and energy in lifting and acknowleging our own accomplishments AND others as well. Clearly ethnic communities have a distinct voice about what THEY deem worthy. If we cant force our way into one party, why not provide our own? History and the current times have steadily proven that we were never handed anything. We always struggle and create what we as a community want/need. So maybe that should be the focus SIMULTANEOUS to the boycott. Lets not just be reactive, but PROactive”.
So, with all of this said, NONE of it is as simple as boycott… don’t boycott… #TeamJada… #TeamJanet… #TeamInBetween. What these trends and statements reveal is that creating intergenerational and interdisciplinary alliances with working artists, actors, crew members, scholars, media production reps, voters, movers, shakers, and more brings us closer to multi-tiered solutions. Recognition is important. So, our approach to finding and gaining and maintaining recognition must. be. sophisticated.
Image Credit: Davidlohr Bueso, Flickr Photos, used with the following permissions from Creative Commons Licensing
Author: Jade Perry is a writer and higher education professional! She regularly contributes to a myriad of online publications on topics such as arts, culture, entertainment, higher education, faith / spirituality, and more. Her mission is to offer information, ideas, & counter-cultural narratives that will empower readers to thrive and to lovingly & creatively challenge secular and sacred systems toward greater levels of inclusion! Connect with her online at JadeTPerry.com or on Twitter @!