As Awards Season Begins, #OscarsSoWhite Creator Reflects On Legacy Of Viral Movement To Diversify Hollywood

April Reign, creator of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, poses for AFP during a photo session in Hollywood, California, on Feb. 1, 2020. An offhand tweet by Reign following the 2015 Oscar nominations announcement and her realization that all 20 actors were white went viral. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

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In January 2015, activist April Reign created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite — calling out the awards ceremony for their lack of diversity. She unexpectedly launched a viral referendum on the disparities and inequities experienced by Blacks and people of color in Hollywood.

Six years later, what's changed, what hasn't and where does Hollywood go from here? April Reign spoke with LAist about the legacy of her viral hashtag.

PERSONAL HEROES

Q: When you think back to some of the people who have inspired how you see the world, who comes to mind?

When I was a freshman in college, I read the autobiography of Malcolm X as told by Alex Haley, and I was so taken with this charismatic man. Malcolm X, very early on, was someone that I looked up to with respect, not only for his brilliant oratory but also his interest in making the country a better place for people that look like me.

WHERE SHOULD STRUCTURAL CHANGE BEGIN IN HOLLYWOOD?

Q: Where do you think diversity needs to start for structural institutional change to be made? Do we need to start by examining casting, what stories are getting greenlighted, how characters are described? Or, do we need to begin even further back with arts education?

It's all of the above.You can't be it if you can't see it, so it's important to start early on. In the last 10 to 20 years, there's been a big push [toward] STEM education, and that's great. But it feels like that we've left the 'A' for arts out of the equation. In my mind, it should actually be STEAM, because not everybody wants to be a doctor or lawyer or engineer. Maybe they want to be a movie director or screenwriter. Cultivating those interests at a young age, in primary, middle and high school, is incredibly important.

The other way [to work toward] structural change is to change who is in positions of power. Right now, when you're talking about the larger studios — Universal, 20th Century, Fox and the rest of them — you are talking about older white men. Change is hard and people are reluctant to do so. But what we know, what the data shows, is that diversity sells. Literally, the more diverse a film is, both in front of and behind the camera, the more money it makes. Hollywood is literally leaving money on the table, and they do not invest in traditionally underrepresented communities, voices, talent, and perspectives of color.

RECOGNITION IS KEY

Q: Let's talk about the power of acknowledgement. Why does it matter whether a film or actor gets widespread recognition? What does being nominated mean, and who holds accountability for where the industry finds itself with a lack of diverse nominees?

Actor Mahershala Ali, winner of Best Supporting Actor for "Moonlight" poses in the press room during the 89th Annual Academy Awards on Feb. 26, 2017 in Hollywood. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

When marginalized communities in entertainment are given opportunity, we have seen the magnificence that results. We can look at "Parasite" and "Moonlight." There are so many amazing films that center communities that historically have not been given equal access to the opportunities that they deserve. Some of that comes from outside, some from inside. Ava DuVernay has openly talked about the fact that Paramount didn't send Oscars screeners copies of "Selma," which was up for awards in 2015.

"Selma" was nominated for two awards but was shut out of the major categories. According to The Washington Post:

"The most obvious snub was "Selma," Ava DuVernay's moving biopic about Martin Luther King Jr. Despite a nod for best picture and best original song (for Common and John Legend's recent Golden Globe-winning 'Glory'), the film's director and actors were shut out in their respective categories. David Oyelowo missed out on a best actor nomination, but more surprisingly, Ava DuVernay was not acknowledged in the best director category, a nomination that would have been the first for an African American woman."

(L-R) Oprah Winfrey, actor David Oyelowo, and director and executive producer Ava DuVernay attend the "Selma" New York Premiere at Ziegfeld Theater on Dec. 14, 2014. (Rob Kim/Getty Images)

If your own studio believes it made a "Black film," and now they're done with it and [they] don't follow the process all the way through, it prevents people like Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo and others involved both in front of and behind the camera from getting the attention and the acclaim that they rightfully deserve. It also prevents future opportunities.

In theory, having "Oscar nominee" or "Oscar winner" after your name opens doors for you in the entertainment industry. We know that that is not true with respect to Black women who have been nominated, and who have even won the Academy Awards' acting category. Look at Octavia Spencer, who is literally an "Oscar winner," tell her story. Jessica Chastain went to the studio on her behalf to help her negotiate a better salary. Jessica Chastain doesn't have the award; Octavia Spencer does. And yet, the phrase "Oscar winner" meant nothing or close to nothing to the studio when telling her what her salary would be.

The same has been true for Mo'Nique, Halle Berry, Whoopie Goldberg and others who have won an Oscar and the doors have not been opened for them.

IS THERE HOPE FOR HOLLYWOOD?

Q: Can an issue that you've described to be so systematically ingrained within the identity and power structure of an industry be changed? Is there any hope for Hollywood?

The thing that brings me some hope is that we have Black actors, directors and producers creating their own production companies. Michael B. Jordan, Will Smith and his wife, and Jada Pinket-Smith have their own production companies. Obviously Ava Duvernay is the prototype here. They are no longer waiting for a seat at the table, they are creating their own mansions and putting their tables in it and creating the art that people want to see.

THE LEGACY OF #OSCARSSOWHITE

Q: What do you hope the legacy of the #OscarsSoWhite movement will be?

I want the legacy of #OscarSoWhite to be normalizing inclusion in the entertainment industry. We are by no means there yet. The way that people on social media are very often calling out these issues with respect to diversity, equity and inclusion I think is the true progress. Because the entertainment industry, like all other industries, ebbs and flows based on the financial bottom line. If less people are watching the TV show or going to the film, that is what is going to make Hollywood truly stand up and take notice, when their pockets are affected.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.