An Academy Award, also known as an Oscar, is widely considered to be the most prestigious honor in the film industry. The 95th Academy Awards are still a topic of conversation for many reasons. Following the 2023 award show, many have continued to call out the Academy. Eight years after April Reign coined the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy continues to display what some have labeled as exclusion and racism. What was perhaps the most notable example of this occurred when Angela Bassett lost the Oscar for best supporting actress. Bassett, who is a veteran actor, has consistently showcased her skills when playing in powerful roles like Tina Turner, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, Katherine Jackson and Dr. Betty Shabazz. Even with Bassett’s undeniable talent and her performance in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, she was snubbed by the Academy.
Despite the lack of representation among 2023 Oscar winners, there were some notable wins. The Black Panther: Wakanda Forever costume designer Ruth E. Carter made history as the first Black woman to ever win two Oscars. Another significant win was that of Michelle Yeoh, who became the first Asian woman to win an Oscar in the best actress category for her role in Everything Everywhere All at Once.
There are five most coveted awards at the Oscars, and among those include the best actress and best actor categories. When examining the winners of the best actress and best actor categories, within the last 50 years there have only been four Black men to win the best actor category and only one Black woman to win the best actress category. Including Yeoh’s historic win, there have been only six East Asians to win Oscars for their acting roles in the show’s 95-year history and only five Latine actors have won Oscars in the show’s history.
The lack of racial diversity among the voting members at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may be part of the problem. According to data by Statista in 2022, 81% of Academy Awards voters were white. There is likely an unconscious and inherent desire, on the part of the voters, to center and reward white films, white stories, white narratives, and white characters. The white gaze may show up when films are being evaluated. When Toni Morrison spoke of the white gaze, she was referring to the invisible white audience that stories are being written and crafted for. Films that were created without the white gaze in mind may not be prioritized, valued or honored within the Academy.
When examining the films that are often awarded, you will find a pattern in Hollywood of rewarding white savior narrative films. In these films, the story centers around a white character who spends the entire film trying to help or save the non-white characters who are often playing roles that perpetuate racial stereotypes. Some classic examples of white savior films that have won Oscars include: The Blind Side, The Help, and 12 Years a Slave.
There is often an expectation that underrepresented actors should be happy simply having a seat at the table. One anonymous Oscar voter echoed these sentiments when discussing Viola Davis and her critically acclaimed film, The Woman King, which didn’t receive any Oscar nominations. In regards to Davis and The Woman King director Gina Prince-Bythewood, the anonymous voter said “we voted, and we voted for the five we thought were best. It’s not fair for you to start suddenly beating a frying pan and say ‘[they’re] ignoring Black people.’ They’re really not, they’re making an effort. Maybe there was a time 10 years ago when they were, but they have, of all the high-profile things, been in the forefront of wanting to be inclusive.” The anonymous voter went on to say “Viola Davis and the lady director need to sit down, shut up, and relax. You didn’t get a nomination — a lot of movies don’t get nominations. Viola, you have one or two Oscars, you’re doing fine.” These comments were infuriating to many because of the underlying assumptions that Black actresses like Viola should be happy with what they have and shouldn’t complain. Black women are often expected to hide their emotions and are criticized more heavily when they are transparent about the inequities they experience. This was personified when Angela Bassett lost the Oscar to Jamie Lee Curtis. Some noted that Bassett was a “sore loser” for being visibly disappointed at the loss.
Regardless of the night’s most memorable wins, the Academy still desperately lacks diversity. A TikTok user by the name @etchaskej pointed out in a video that according to a research study conducted by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, women of color were either in a lead or a co-lead role in 16% of the 100 top-grossing films in 2022. In the 95 years that the Oscars have been around, if 16% of these top films were played by women of color, the TikTok user suggests that there should be roughly 15 women of color who have won the best actress award. “But instead, we got two, in 95 years,” the user explained in the video.
Despite the fact that for the 2023 Academy Awards, there was a bump in ratings from 2022, it was the third-least-watched Oscars on record, the New York Times indicates. Part of this lack of viewership may be due to decreased interest in award shows in general, especially across younger viewers. In addition, some viewers may be actively boycotting award shows like the Oscars due to the lack of racial diversity. If the Oscars, and other award shows, want to remain viable and culturally relevant, they must adapt with the times. First off, there must be continued efforts to increase diversity among the voting members; the Academy should continue to invite new members from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Second, the world needs more films that depict diverse and nuanced stories being highlighted. When viewers don’t see themselves reflected in the films and actors being awarded, they have few reasons to continue to watch.