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Hollywood and Race

This Sunday, nearly 40 million people are likely to tune in to see who captures an Oscar at the annual Academy Awards ceremonies. Winning the award can add millions to a film’s box office and supercharge the career of an actor, director, screenwriter or editor. According to the Academy’s 2009-10 fiscal year tax filing, the Oscars generated $81.3 million in revenue. This is a big deal.

It is avidly watched by the moviegoing population of this sprawling and diverse nation of more than 300 million people, and by millions more around the world. Hollywood sets styles, captures imaginations, touches dreams. Worldwide, movies provide people with much of what they think about America.

Yet, the 5,765 voting members of the Academy are far from representative of the moviegoing public. They are more akin to the old packed juries of the segregated South. A remarkable investigation by Los Angeles Times reporters pierced the screen of secrecy to reveal that the voting members are a stunning 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male. Only 2 percent are African American, and less than 2 percent are Latino. Their median age is 62, and only 14 percent are younger than 50.

The Academy’s leaders say the organization is trying to do better, but it is hard to see any evidence of that. Since 2004, the names of 1,000 invitees have been published: 89 percent white, and 73 percent male. The 43 member Academy Board of Governors has all of six women, one of whom is the sole person of color. The Academy’s executive branch is 98 percent white, as is its writers branch. Corporate boardrooms do better than that.

Defenders of the Academy say its membership reflects a combination of legacy (memberships are for life) and achievement. But the sad reality is that the membership reflects hiring patterns that are equally skewed. The Times story quotes writer/editor Phil Auden Robinson, who concludes: “If the industry as a whole is not doing a great job in opening up its ranks, it’s very hard for us to diversify our membership.”

Not surprisingly, the voting tends to reflect the composition of the voters. In the 83 years of the Academy, the Times reports, only 4 percent of Oscars have been awarded to an African American. Only one woman has received the award for directing.

In 2011, not a single minority person was among the 45 nominees for the major awards: best actor, best actress, best supporting actor, best supporting actress, director, original and adapted screenplay. More astounding, the Academy failed to identify even one black male presenter for the awards. African-American actors were not only shut out of the awards; they were shut out of the attention that comes from presenting them.

This year, at least, minorities will not be shut out. Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Mexican-born Demian Bichir will contend for major acting awards.

It is long past time for the industry to open up and for the Academy to reach out. It was long past time back in 1996 when the Rainbow Coalition organized a nationwide protest over the lack of minority Oscar nominees. Women and minorities dream of becoming directors, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors just as white men do. Young talent drives Hollywood and our popular culture more than the established older generation. And Hollywood’s audience across the country and around the world is young and diverse.

Hollywood defines what is hip. But when it comes to diversity, the Academy is about 50 years behind the times.

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson is founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

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