30 Under 30 2020

#OscarsSoWhite: An Oral History of the Movement That Upended Hollywood

Five years ago, one Twitter hashtag changed the narrative in an industry with entrenched disparities. Here, Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay and other insiders tell the story as they lived it

By Reggie Ugwu
Published: Feb 8, 2020

bg oscars so whiteAs this year’s Oscar nominees suggest, the old establishment has not been displaced overnight. (Keith Negley/The New York Times)

“Congratulations to those men.”

A month ago, exactly three seconds after she’d announced a list of Oscar nominees for best director that excluded women, writer and actress Issa Rae appended those four words, an indictment sheathed in a ribbon of praise: “Congratulations to those men.”

The official announcement and its condemnation, delivered in almost the same breath on a live telecast, say a lot about Hollywood in 2020. The industry is in the clutches of an extremely public identity crisis, in which the fresh, multicultural image it aspires to (Rae and her co-host, John Cho) is undermined by the observable evidence (the list of nominees).

Before #OscarsSoWhite, a social justice campaign that began five years ago last month, the crisis had been contained. The fact that 92% of top film directors were men and 86% of top films featured white actors in the lead roles — a pattern dating back decades — did not often dominate entertainment news, least of all on Hollywood’s biggest night.

As former academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, one of more than a dozen people who spoke to The New York Times for this history of the movement, said recently, “That was the industry: You’d scan around the room, and everyone looked the same. But people didn’t get what was going on. Members would say, ‘We’re professionals; we just vote for who’s best.’”

On Jan. 15, 2015, the academy awarded all 20 acting nominations to white actors for the first of two consecutive years, inspiring April Reign to create the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. Reign, then a campaign finance lawyer and pop-culture-obsessed contributor to a loose community of black Twitter users, was hardly a Hollywood power broker.

But her words, coming on the heels of #BlackLivesMatter, erupted like a big bang, creating the conditions for a constellation of social movements — from #WhiteWashedOUT for Asian representation to Time’s Up for gender parity — that intensified media attention on the industry’s treatment of historically marginalized groups.

In the movie business, nothing is feared like bad press, and by 2016 timeworn incentive structures had begun to tilt in favor of increased diversity in front of and behind the camera. Films like “Get Out,” “Black Panther,” “Coco’’ and “Crazy Rich Asians” drove a multicultural gold rush at the box office as well as the Oscars, where a record 13 winners of color took home awards in 2019 alone.

But as this year’s nominees suggest, the old establishment has not been displaced overnight. Only one performer of color — Cynthia Erivo of “Harriet” — was nominated, and female directors of top-rated films, like Greta Gerwig of “Little Women,” Lorene Scafaria of “Hustlers” and Lulu Wang of “The Farewell,” were left out.

And yet it would be inaccurate to say that nothing has changed since that morning five years ago when Reign logged on to Twitter, or that recent developments have been undone. In edited excerpts below, filmmakers, awards watchers and academy members tell the inside story of how what began as a three-word hashtag forced an insular, $42 billion industry to change course.

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‘Fed Up’

At 8:30 a.m. Eastern Time on Jan. 15, 2015, the nominees for the 87th annual Academy Awards were announced live on television from the Beverly Hills headquarters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

CHERYL BOONE ISAACS (president of the academy, 2013-17): The president gets to see the nominations about an hour and a half early, and as soon as I saw them, my heart sank.

APRIL REIGN (creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite): My kid was upstairs getting ready for school, and I was watching in my family room as I got ready for work. It struck me that there were no people of color nominated, so I picked up my phone. “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.” It happened in seconds.

DAWN HUDSON (chief executive of the academy): I had a very good idea what was going to come next.

REIGN: I checked my phone at lunch, and it was trending around the world: “#OscarsSoWhite they wear Birkenstocks in the wintertime.” “#OscarsSoWhite they have a perfect credit score.”

FRANKLIN LEONARD (founder of the Black List, a platform for unproduced screenplays): Her stroke of genius was that it was so economically put from a language perspective. And because there was basically no counterevidence, it demanded a certain attention.

SPIKE LEE (director, “BlacKkKlansman”): When black Twitter gets on your black ass ... ooh, it ain’t no joke.

BARRY JENKINS (director, “Moonlight”): At a certain point, people just get fed up.

AVA DUVERNAY (director, “Selma”): It was a catalyst for a conversation about what had really been a decadeslong absence of diversity and inclusion.

LEONARD: It was the year after “12 Years a Slave” won. We had been led to believe that something substantive about the culture had changed. But then, just as in the transition from Obama to Trump, it turned out that maybe it hadn’t.

BOONE ISAACS: It said a lot not just about the academy but about America and where its bases of power are.

REIGN: It could’ve been a bunch of different things — there were no women in the directors category, there were no visibly disabled people nominated — so #OscarsSoWhite has never just been about race. It’s about the underrepresentation of all marginalized groups.

In a “Brutally Honest” Oscar ballot published by The Hollywood Reporter in February, an anonymous Oscar voter called the decision by the cast of “Selma” to express support for #BlackLivesMatter at the film’s New York premiere “offensive.”

LEONARD: There was this pushback like, “How dare these people speak up so aggressively.” It was the #AllLivesMatter response, but for movies.

DUVERNAY: Studio people had been whispering to me, “You shouldn’t have done that.” But I would do it all again. If you cannot be respectful of our alignment with that cause, with that protest, with that rallying cry, then there was nothing that I wanted from you anyway.

bg oscars so white adv09 3Barry Jenkins and the “Moonlight” team as they win best picture at the 89th Academy Awards in Los Angeles, Feb. 26, 2017. As the 2020 Oscar nominees suggest, the old establishment has not been displaced overnight. (Patrick T. Fallon/The New York Times)

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‘A Shifting Tide’

On Jan. 14, 2016, all 20 Oscar nominations in the acting categories went to white performers for the second year in a row, elevating the stature of #OscarsSoWhite. (The next morning, a front-page headline in the Los Angeles Times asked, “Where’s the Diversity?”) At an emergency meeting a week later, Hudson, Boone Isaacs and the academy’s board of governors approved ambitious targets for a membership initiative known as A2020, aiming to double the number of women and ethnically underrepresented members in four years.

REIGN: One time you could call a fluke. Two times feels like a pattern.

BOONE ISAACS: We had already been working toward increasing diversity and inclusion, but we went from first to fourth gear.

HUDSON: A crisis happens, and it becomes a catalyst for accelerated change.

BOONE ISAACS: The statistics showed that our membership was 94% white and 77% male. People would say to me that it wasn’t on purpose, and I would ask them, “Are you sure?”

LEE: Cheryl Boone Isaacs really made it her mission to open things up so that the voting body looked more like America.

LEONARD: It gave me a little bit of hope.

______

Later that month, The Hollywood Reporter published letters from academy members who opposed the changes. The new rules, these members said, implied that “all of us are racists,” were “capitulating to political correctness” and “lessened” the academy’s value as “a measuring stick for excellence,” among other objections.

BOONE ISAACS: I do have my share of hate mail for ruining the organization.

RUTH CARTER (costume designer, “Selma” and “Black Panther”): They were afraid of one drop of black blood.

REGINALD HUDLIN (film director and producer, 2016 Academy Awards ceremony): That kind of stuff is encouraging to me. If you don’t hear from those people, you’re not making a difference.

DENNIS RICE (member of the academy’s public relations branch): I think we have to create an environment that supports diversity within our industry, but I’m color- and gender-blind when it comes to recognizing our art. You should look purely and objectively at the artistic accomplishment.

BOONE ISAACS: Are you kidding me? We all have biases. You just don’t see it if it doesn’t affect you.

HUDSON: We needed to make sure the membership represented a wide swath of the community and that it was looking at a wide swath of films.

LEONARD: I think what happened with the academy forced conversations among decision-makers across the industry. What are we doing here? Why are we making the decisions that we’re making? And oh, if we continue to make the decisions that we’re making, we will be called out about it.

______

This month, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California reported a 17% increase in 2019 in the number of top films with people of color in a lead role since the year #OscarsSoWhite began.

PETER RAMSEY (one of three directors of “Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse”): You could see the tide shifting a little from the same few recognizable white stars to movies that were in tune with younger and more diverse sensibilities.

LEONARD: All of this corresponds with a generation of filmmakers — Barry, Ryan [Coogler], Ava, Dee [Rees], Jordan [Peele] — who came up in the industry over the last 10, 15 years and knew that they had to be that much better to have the same chance that their white male peers would have.

RAMSEY: The animation world has always been really homogeneous, but I’ve seen more and more people of color and women come to prominence. If you look at the slates of places like Pixar and Sony and Netflix, that stuff is translating to real change.

JENKINS: It wasn’t about promoting diversity for diversity’s sake. It was about correcting a blind spot. The artists of merit have always been there.

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‘Feast or Famine’

On Feb. 26, 2017, the night of the first Oscars of the A2020 era, more than 20 people of color were in contention, including seven in the acting categories and Jenkins for “Moonlight.” The winners included Jenkins (as a screenwriter) and Mahershala Ali for “Moonlight” and Viola Davis for “Fences.” After a stunning mishap in which the award was erroneously given to “La La Land,” “Moonlight” also won best picture.

REIGN: 2017 felt different.

RAMSEY: The door was widening.

JENKINS: I don’t know if the numbers were shifting things, but I do think perspectives were broadening. #OscarsSoWhite had put the fact that so many people were being overlooked under a microscope. If “Moonlight” had come out three years earlier, I’m not sure how many people would have picked up that screener.

LEONARD: On the one hand, maybe the new members changed the trajectory. But on the other hand, maybe, like “12 Years a Slave,” it was just that much better than everything else.

CARTER: It didn’t feel like it was the black vote or the diversity vote; it felt like it was the right vote.

______

At the 2018 Oscars, four people of color were nominated in the acting categories. Peele, nominated three times for “Get Out,” won for original screenplay. In 2019, Ramsey, Carter and Lee were among a record-breaking seven African American winners at a single ceremony.

RAMSEY: It was 2019 when things seemed to really be maturing. The feeling I had was, “Oh, I think this is real.” It felt solid.

LEE: The one thing I regret is that there’s not a picture of us all together holding our Oscars. Because it was bananas. It was crazy up in there.

JENKINS: I was getting a glass of Champagne, and I looked up at the monitor, and I think Hannah [Beachler, production designer for “Black Panther” and “Moonlight”] was onstage. I was like “Oh [expletive] — has anybody white won an Oscar yet?”

CARTER: It felt amazing to be there with Spike and to be able to thank him from the stage for giving me my start [on “School Daze” in 1988]. Later, I was just a few rows back while he was getting his.

LEE: If it were not for April Reign’s hashtag and Cheryl Boone Isaacs being president — the work of two sisters — I would not have an Oscar.

REIGN: I don’t believe in having one good night and then declaring, “Everything is great.” The pendulum swings back and forth, as we’ve seen.

______

This year’s nominations include just one actor of color (Cynthia Erivo), and eight of the nine best picture nominees feature overwhelmingly white casts. (Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” is the exception.) Still, the academy is on track to reach its diversity targets by this summer, according to a spokeswoman. In total, it has grown by more than 3,000 new members since 2016, a nearly 50% increase.

CARTER: The 2020 nominations are shameful. I love Scarlett Johansson [nominated for both “Marriage Story” and “Jojo Rabbit”]. If she had played two very different characters in the same film the way that Lupita Nyong’o did in “Us,” might that have been deemed worthy of a nomination?

LEE: After last year’s ceremony, I said, “It ain’t gonna be like this next year!” It’s always feast or famine with us.

DUVERNAY: The majority of that voting body has not changed. It’s still 84% white and 68% male. From a voting perspective, even doubling the number of women and people of color doesn’t really tip the scales.

REIGN: If you look at the demographics of this country or the demographics of moviegoers, we’re nowhere near true representation.

LEONARD: You could have a year when literally every nominee is of color, and that would still not mean that the systemic problems that exist in the industry have somehow evaporated overnight — any more than Obama being elected president means that we’ve solved the problem of racism.

REIGN: We have to start way before the awards conversation. What kind of stories are getting greenlit? How are the characters described?

JENKINS: I think we have to allow that the academy can have divergent tastes every year while still keeping the volume up and pointing things out. How can you have six Asian films that have received five or more nominations, and not one of them has ever been honored in the acting category? We just have to keep the conversation going and keep making movies.

LEE: This thing’s not gonna turn around overnight. It’s been a battle from the beginning: Hattie McDaniel, Sidney Poitier. And why should we think that struggle is not a part of our existence?

BOONE ISAACS: There’s always yin and yang, there’s always push and pull — always. But I am a big believer that you stay on point, you stay on goal, and you keep moving.

RAMSEY: There’s too many other ways to get entertainment now than the tiny number of movies that get official academy recognition each year. #OscarsSoWhite is an alarm bell. It’s saying, “Keep up with us, or we’re going to leave you behind.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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