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Representation and diversity at the Oscars has increased, but is it just reactionary?

When looking at the 91st Academy Awards nominees, they seem fairly diverse. Between the landmark nomination of Black Panther for Best Picture and the multiple nominations for films such as BlacKkKlansman, If Beale Street Could Talk and Green Book, stories representing and showcasing diversity are making a statement. 

That change of diversity comes just three years after the 2016 Oscars scandal. With all 20 actors nominated for lead and supporting roles being white, as well more than 90 percent of academy voters falling into the same category, which lead to that year’s awards show garnering the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. 

Cinema and film has been an avenue to prompt discussion about race and diversity for decades. Although most films aim to bring awareness to the deeply-laced issues within society, some fall short. Where Hollywood sometimes lack in sparking conversation, the Athens County Public Libraries is doing its parts to spread awareness within town.

The nominations of 2019 seem diverse on the surface, yet is it enough? The James Baldwin-adapted If Beale Street Could Talk from director Barry Jenkins only racked up three nods. Similarly, Crazy Rich Asians, which was a monumental film for Asian-Americans was completely left out of the nominations. 

Akil Houston, an associate professor of cultural and media studies in African American Studies department, believes Hollywood has become reactionary to social change, thus resulting in the increase of diversity. Houston referenced the correlation between Sidney Poitier, the first African-American person to win Best Actor, with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, both of which occurred in 1968.

“There’s all this conversation on equality and where to go, so it’s kind of like, ‘You know, let’s give this guy the award’,” Houston said.

Houston further explained when diversity is present just for the sake of being there, it can take away from deserving performances.

During Sandra Oh and Andy Samberg's hosting gig at the 2019 Golden Globe Awards, the comedian-duo called out Emma Stone for her white-washed role in 2015’s Aloha. Similarly, actresses like Scarlett Johansson and Elizabeth Taylor have been accused of accepting roles in white-washed casts.   

“You have ample opportunity to give people of color and other marginalized groups those roles, and yet you still prefer to use these other people,” Houston said.

Houston acknowledged the fact that using big-name actors in films brings box office draw, despite not being the most faithful to the story. 

“I feel like if you give other people an opportunity, they too can become household names,” he said. 

Ultimately, Houston said, representation of racism in film will be better achieved when films not only look at personal, more narrative storytelling, but the institutional side of things as well. 

“You tend to see these stories about some personal journey to overcome racism on a personal level, but more often than not, these approaches don’t do anything to address institutional and systemic forces of what causes racism,” Houston said. 

The Athens County Public Libraries are also trying to start a conversation on racism and intolerance. The libraries have had showings of Not In Our Town at five of its seven branches so far, and plans to show the documentary at the Nelsonville Public Library on Feb. 6 and the Glouster Public Library on Feb. 13. 

The documentary focuses on the town of Billings, Montana, where ordinary citizens band together while under attack against white supremacists. Debbie Schmieding, an Athens local who brought the documentary to the county library, believes the film is a great discussion piece and admits the decision to show the documentary came from regretting inaction. 

“I’m tired about not doing something about hate and intolerance,” Schmieding said. “Who knows if this is the right thing to do? But do something for heaven’s sake.”  

Becca Lachman, the communications officer for the Athens County Libraries, also believes the film is a great fit for the county. 

“We’re glad the libraries can be a space that welcomes not only community-building but hard conversations,” Lachman said in an email. “The kind that hopefully mean you’re on your way to evolving into a better neighbor, friend, ally, etc. when you walk out the door.”

Hollywood is in a place of transition, and Houston said it’s unfortunate that it’s taken various social movements to get to that place when it should have happened ages ago. Referencing the amazing and lasting impact of Black Panther, Houston couldn’t help but remember its release in 2018 and the fact that the film is somewhat the first of its kind. 

“You know you’ve reached a new level of diversity and inclusion when you’re no longer excited about the fact that this is the first whatever,” Houston said.  


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