Last column I wrote about the 2016 Academy Award noms and the controversy that arose after, for the second year in a row, all the top acting hopefuls — best actress and actor, and best supporting actress and actor — were white folks. (See http://tinyurl.com/heqz4y5 to read that column.)
The reaction has been called #OscarsSoWhite, the name of a Twitter thread on that very topic.
After the noms were revealed, some blamed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that runs the Academy Awards or Oscars. How, the thinking went, in 2016 could there be not even one movie that featured an Oscar-worthy performance by a black, Hispanic, Asian or other non-white actor or actress?
Something was wrong. Some in the Hollywood community were calling for a boycott of the 88th Academy Awards for the overwhelmingly Caucasian lineup.
From my perspective, while the reaction to the Oscar noms was justifiable, the calls for boycotting the show amounted to punishing the wrong party, namely AMPAS.
While the voting membership of AMPAS might be a legitimate part of the problem for a number of reasons, the bigger problem was the pool from which the nominees were chosen. AMPAS could only choose from the movies produced, mostly from the big six Hollywood studios
So, I spoke with Chris Tashima and Dan Mayeda, two men with long histories of championing diversity in Hollywood, one pushing for change from within, the other from the outside.
By within, I mean that Tashima is an active AMPAS member and an Oscar winner. Mayeda, meanwhile, is co-chair of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, which with other groups with similar goals regarding inclusivity in media has worked to apply external pressure on media companies for diversity in television. (A link to the news conference Mayeda alluded to in my last column is at http://tinyurl.com/hyfzuhj.)
Prior to that news conference, Mayeda told me, “As a multi-ethnic coalition, we’ve made tremendous strides, we think, in helping to diversify network television. We started this work about 16 years ago and in the past couple of years we’ve seen the fruits of that work where there’s a lot more diversity now in prime-time as well as other distribution outlets.
“Our view is just as we’ve made that kind of progress in television and have been able to persuade the networks that there’s money to be made in presenting diverse stories and diverse talent to their audiences, we believe that the film also should become cognizant of the opportunities to make money by diversifying their slates.”
Showing the economic benefits of inclusion was important, Mayeda said, because just trying to persuade a movie studio to make those changes because it was the right thing to do or the moral thing to do might not be enough of an incentive.
So, in the last column I wanted to see what Tashima and Mayeda’s thoughts were overall on the controversy. This time out, I wanted to get into why they thought it came to a head now and what the future may hold for inclusivity and Hollywood, including getting some Japanese American stories told.
As for why now for the issue to finally be examined by mainstream media and why there was actually some action forthcoming, compared with pretty much any other time, including attempts to mount a boycott in 1996 under similar circumstances, Tashima thought that social media was the key.
In 2016, Twitter, for instance, has been a force for several years now, a still-evolving but basically mature way for a hot topic to trend instantly, reaching thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of interested people.
In other words, the #OscarsSoWhite topic was an outgrowth of the Black Lives Matter movement that arose from Ferguson and all the other police-involved shootings of mostly young black men of the past few years.
“The #OscarsSoWhite is good in that it’s generating discussion, and getting attention in ways we usually don’t see, with social media, and an overall greater consciousness about diversity needs,” Tashima said.
The tougher part, according to Tashima, is the pushback from individual white people who, to his view, don’t comprehend the problem, even if they have good intentions. “They can’t deal with a lot of this discussion because they take it personally,” Tashima said. “That just makes them angry and they feel attacked and then they don’t hear anything.
“There’s actually been quite a bit of opposition voiced by Academy members, feeling like they’re being attacked or called racist. No one ever said that. But that’s kind of a typical response.
“They only view it as, ‘That means I hate people, and I don’t hate people.’ Well, no, that’s a really small part of racism. In fact, that part is under control. We know who the KKK are and they’re not our problem because we know their agenda and everyone deals with it, for the most part, the way we agree with.”
“It’s the people who are totally unaware of what they’re doing and whenever it’s brought up, immediately you have this knee-jerk reaction, ‘I’m not a racist, so don’t say that, it’s not true.’
“They also confuse the fact that their intention is good or their intention is not based on race. They always say, ‘But I didn’t mean it that way,’ and intention has nothing to do with the issue and they don’t realize it. It’s all about impact, you know.”
As for what the future might entail regarding inclusion and movies telling universal stories from non-white communities, both Tashima and Mayeda seemed hopeful. Tashima said the “digital revolution” is putting the tools — meaning inexpensive, high-quality digital video cameras and editing software on laptops, tablets and even smartphones — in the hands of more people outside the industry who will make a difference and tell those stories.
“Before, you couldn’t. It was expensive to shoot one roll of film,” he said. “It’s not expensive to click ‘record’ on your iPhone. Everything’s changed.”
Along with the tools, we also have a more democratized means of distribution, via do-it-yourself means like YouTube or Vimeo or content-hungry Netflix and Amazon Studios, which have emerged as viable alternatives for production and distribution.
Tashima also thinks change is inevitable within the industry. “Those people who have been the heads of the studios are fading away, being replaced by a younger generation, which has a younger generation behind it. The millennials grew up with a completely differently understanding of race, fortunately. … they have Obama,” he said. “And I never would’ve dreamed until late in 2007 that it was even possible. So, it’s just different.”
But Mayeda also said that part of the problem is that “we’re not even in the game,” meaning there aren’t people who are Japanese American or Asian American in the industry right now with enough clout to make things happen.
Regarding a movie about a Japanese American story or biopic about people like Fred Korematsu, Dan Inouye, Iva Toguri and so on, he said, “There are a lot of compelling stories coming out of the Japanese American community and other Asian American communities. Whether you could package together all of the elements that are necessary to make a picture and get it in theaters is another question.”
Mayeda even wondered whether theatrical was the best vehicle for getting those movies before more eyeballs, that maybe outlets like Netflix might end up being a better vehicle.
However, Mayeda was aware that in Hollywood, one of the problems is that there aren’t enough “talents” who are bankable to make things happen.
“Right now it’s hard to think who could carry a picture like that. We should have more opportunities so that we can find the individuals who can pop out and make a picture that can be in theaters,” he said.
Nevertheless, thanks to all the hubbub, maybe now that the ears are open, that now is the time broach some of those ideas that would never have even been considered a few months ago.
“There has never been a time when there has been more opportunity to tell your story, to get it disseminated, than now,” Mayeda said, echoing Tashima’s thoughts on the digital revolution.
So, we may actually be going “Into the Next Stage” after so many years. In the short term, we can enjoy the 88th Academy Awards show on Sunday, Feb. 28. Chris Rock is one of my favorite comedians and I’m really looking forward to him hosting what may be the last OscarsSoWhite show.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2016 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.