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2015: Oscars So White

Chris Pine 0:00

[Academy Awards soundbite] For Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, the nominees are-- Patricia Arquette... [duck under]

Jacqueline Stewart 0:06

[music] On the morning of January 15, 2015, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and actor Chris Pine were announcing the nominees for the Oscars.

April Reign 0:16

It struck me that category after category, there were no people of color nominated, at least for any of the acting categories.

Jacqueline Stewart 0:25

This is April Reign, who at the time was working as an attorney in Washington, DC, and was watching the announcement of the nominees on television.

April Reign 0:32

So if we're talking about 2015, those are the films from 2014. So we're talking about Beyond the Lights, and Selma, and there were some really great performances. And so I picked up my phone, and I tweeted one thing: Oscars so white, they asked to touch my hair. And that was it. It was not a conversation. Uh, I then was late for work, [April and Jacqueline laugh] so I got on to my job. Uh, and around lunchtime, I checked in on Twitter, and based on that one tweet, the #OscarsSoWhite was trending around the world. [music out]

April Reign 1:08

[theme music begins] So now, as you can imagine, I was being a little snarky. And so the responses that I was receiving and seeing on Twitter were Oscar so white, they have a perfect credit score, and Oscar so white, they wear Birkenstocks in the wintertime. And it wasn't until a few days later, that we pivoted the conversation into something more substantive, about the need for more inclusion and representation, not just within the Oscar nominations, or even the Academy, but among entertainment as a whole.

Jacqueline Stewart 1:45

I'm Jacqueline Stewart. You're listening to the Academy Museum Podcast. In this episode, we're revisiting the 2015 and 2016 Academy Awards, the years of Oscars So White.

April Reign 1:58

The #OscarsSoWhite really took off in 2016, even more than it did in 2015. I believe that people said, you know, okay, one time is a fluke, but two or more times is a pattern.

Jacqueline Stewart 2:12

We'll hear the story from those who were there-- about how a viral hashtag turned into a social justice campaign that helped change the makeup of the Academy itself.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs 2:22

The Academy was never, all those years, about trying to, quote recruit. It was trying to put it in kind of decent ways of, if you were very interested, almost like the business itself, you would seek the information. Well, that's actually a put off, isn't it? And it does send a message.

Reggie Hudlin 2:45

There was a great line I once heard from the godfather of Black cinema, Melvin van Peebles. He said, trouble is opportunity in work clothes. [music out]

April Reign 3:03

I was still a practicing attorney at that time, January 2015. And I had no nexus to the Oscars directly, or even the entertainment industry other than the fact that I loved film. I love TV. Uh, and I love the stage. So I was a big entertainment consumer.

Jacqueline Stewart 3:24

Again, this is media strategist and diversity and inclusion advocate April Reign, who created the Oscars So White hashtag. At the time, Reign had a substantial Twitter presence with about 8000 followers and was active in a growing network of Twitter users known as Black Twitter.

April Reign 3:42

And so, I'm knocking on the door saying, hey, we need to do something different. And I know that there were people inside the Academy, who were saying, hey, we need to do something different. And sometimes you need both the outside an- and the inside so that you can have these conversations and point and say this is what our consumers want, the people that you want to reach, the people that you want to watch the show every year, this is what they're talking about.

Jacqueline Stewart 4:06

A person on the inside, who was also working to create change was Academy President, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Before becoming president, she'd been a member of the marketing and public relations branch of the Academy's Board of Governors for two decades. In 2013, she became the first Black president of the Academy. And she told me she has a visceral memory of finding out who the Oscar nominees were in 2015, a couple of hours before the live announcement.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs 4:35

My initial reaction was my stomach went somewhere um, down my leg or somewhere. Looking at the nominations, I thought, oh, good grief, because I really felt that there was an opportunity for recognition, and it wasn't there. And I was a little concerned, I have to tell you beforehand, because that's just my marketing background, looking at press, what was being talked about, what wasn't, the campaigns, because the campaign's matter. And what happens when it gets to that fateful day, the nominations day, and I thought, oh, good possibilities here. But I wonder if anybody's going to really push through, oh, and the movies. You know, Selma then was nominated, and which I was very happy for. But I would say that uh, David, not being nominated. That bothered me.

Jacqueline Stewart 5:40

Actor David Oyelowo played Martin Luther King, Jr. in director, Ava DuVernay's 2014 film, Selma.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs 5:48

I felt that he embodied Martin Luther King in such a way that I forgot it was David, you know? I was, I was very, I was disappointed. And then went back to my office after, probably head like this, head in hand, like, okay, here we go, here we go. Um, and I, you know, right away, I decided I wasn't going to shy away from this. People were upset, at- rightfully, and um, we convened pretty quickly to talk about this situation. And I do want to say that efforts had been started before, after the LA Times story.

Jacqueline Stewart 6:33

For years, the list of Oscar voters and the demographic makeup of the Academy- in terms of gender, age, and race- wasn't information that was shared with the public. That was until a 2012 Los Angeles Times investigation identified nearly 90% of the Academy's members and determined that 94% were white and 77% were male.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs 6:55

So what I say is, in um automobile terms, we went from second to fourth. And that push was actually very helpful. Because I know that there were many members that were all voicing the fact that the Academy needs to move into the 21st century, in many different ways, and this being the biggest.

Jacqueline Stewart 7:20

At the Academy's Governors Awards in November of 2015, Boone Isaacs announced that that year's class of new members was the most diverse ever and launched a new Academy initiative called A2020.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs 7:31

[audio clip] A five-year plan to build on these efforts, and to take concrete measures to improve the diversity of our staff and governance, as well as how we elect our leadership and bring in new voices. But we can't stop there. And we can't continue this effort without your help.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs 7:52

And we introduced it at the Governors Awards, because we wanted- I didn't want to do just a press release or any other way of bringing this forward. The best place to do it is in a room full of the most powerful in town. And they're sitting there, and they can't go anywhere. They can't turn it off. They can't [laughs] do you know what I mean? [Jacqueline laughs] Um, they are, they, they are there.

Jacqueline Stewart 8:20

But when the 2016 Oscar nominations were announced two months after the initiative was announced, it became clear that change was not coming quickly enough.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs 8:28

I thought the first year was something but the second was-- I, I, I, I-I don't remember eating for the next day or two. You know, just quietly on my own just sort of, okay, this is just, [music] this is, this is, this is a mountain but we're gonna climb it. This is a mountain, how are we going to climb it? Gotta climb it.

Jacqueline Stewart 8:51

That's after the break. [music out]

Jacqueline Stewart 9:01

For the Academy Awards in 2016, David Hill and Reggie Hudlin were tapped to co-produce the broadcast. Hudlin is a writer, director and producer whose films include House Party, Boomerang, and Marshall. He was nominated for an Oscar for producing Django Unchained.

Reggie Hudlin 9:18

So when I was named as a producer of the Oscars, I was sitting in my office, it was around six or seven, it was pretty late. It was dark out, but I hadn't left the office yet. My phone rang. I answered it. And it's Quincy Jones. And Quincy Jones says, Helluva job, ain't it. [Reggie and Jacqueline laugh]

Reggie Hudlin 9:37

And you know, you just get happy because A- you're talking to Quincy Jones, so already, like you're talking to a hero, right? And he starts talking about his experience as the first Black producer of the Oscars. The first time there was a really concerted effort to deal with the lack of diversity in Oscar nominations, was ironically, the year that Quincy Jones was producing the Oscars, and Whoopi Goldberg was hosting the Oscars.

Jacqueline Stewart 10:05

The Oscars So White push in 2016 was not something radically new. Back in 1996, music producer and media mogul Quincy Jones produced the 68th Academy Awards.

Reggie Hudlin 10:25

And there was a big push by Jesse Jackson to say, Hey, what's going on with the Oscars? There's all these talented Black people who are not being acknowledged for their work. And look, obviously, that is, that was a tremendous oversight that needed to be addressed. [Jacqueline: Mmm hmm.] The irony is addressing it on the year that there actually is a Black producer of the Oscars and a Black host of the Oscars. Little did I know it was going to be a foreshadowing of my own Oscar producing experience.

Jacqueline Stewart 10:58

Of the more than 150 nominees in 1996, only one was Black. Dianne Houston, for the live action short Tuesday Morning Ride. Two weeks before that year's Oscar ceremony, People Magazine ran a cover story titled "Hollywood Blackout" and spotlighted the exclusion that year of Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, and Laurence Fishburne. The subheading read, "The film industry says all the right things, but its continued exclusion of African Americans is a national disgrace."

Reggie Hudlin 11:31

And that was a big deal because now the mainstream press is acknowledging the issue. That's not just some frustration being expressed within the Black community. It cut through the Black community into the mainstream.

Jacqueline Stewart 11:45

Jesse Jackson called for protests and a boycott. But his efforts were minimized. Before the awards in an interview with the LA Times, the Academy's Executive Director, Bruce Davis, who is white said, quote, "The Academy is probably the most liberal organization in this country, this side of the NAACP. To say that the Academy is discriminating against minorities is absurdity at the highest level." But Davis did meet personally with Reverend Jackson before the ceremony. Jackson agreed to hold his protest at ABC Studios and not outside the theater. And Davis and other Academy officials said they would encourage members to wear ribbons in solidarity with Jackson's call for more inclusion in the industry. In the end, Quincy Jones was possibly the only attendee who wore one. But it was also clear that a lot of people saw the push for diversity as a joke. On Saturday Night Live, actor Darrell Hammond donned blackface to play Jackson in a sketch about him calling out the Academy.

Darrell Hammond 12:48

[SNL soundbite] Why Tommy Lee Jones and not James Earl Jones? [laughter] Why John Huston and not Whitney Houston? [laughter] Why Sir John Gielgud and not Sir Mix A Lot? [laughter] Why Liam Neeson and not little boy who played Urkel? [laughter]

Jacqueline Stewart 13:03

20 years later, when Reggie Hudlin was producing the Oscars, it became evident that while a lot had changed, a lot had not.

Reggie Hudlin 13:11

There was a feeling as we got closer to to voting and all that, that you know, even though there were so many great Black films that year, and Black performances that year, that people of color were going to be underrepresented.

Jacqueline Stewart 13:30

And with the birth of the Oscars So White movement the previous year, there were worries about a repeat.

Reggie Hudlin 13:36

And it was enough of a concern there was a meeting between the Academy, ABC, and the producers. And we talked about it and I said, Well, look, we don't know what's going to happen. We can't control what's going to happen. All we could do is you know, be prepared in terms of response. So I said, I think if it goes really bad in terms of lack of representation of a lot of worthy performances, that we should basically just let Chris Rock say when he wants to say.

Jacqueline Stewart 14:07

Chris Rock had first hosted the awards back in 2005. And Hudlin says he was his and David Hill's first choice for a host in 2016.

Reggie Hudlin 14:16

And everyone agreed. The Academy and the um, and the network all agree. Yes, we're just going to let Chris Rock speak his mind. And I said, Okay, we all remember this.

Jacqueline Stewart 14:27

And then came nomination day.

Reggie Hudlin 14:30

So the morning that nominations are announced, you get to the Academy around three in the morning, three or four in the morning.

Jacqueline Stewart 14:39

The Academy's headquarters are on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills.

Reggie Hudlin 14:43

And the room is sealed off, right. So it's just the folks who are dealing with it, right. And I go up and I see Cheryl Boone Isaacs, I say good morning. And she goes, it's not a good morning. It's not a good morning at all. [music] And I go what's wrong, and she hands me the list of the nominees and I looked through it. And I realized there are no Black nominees. We thought, oh, there will be some people overlooked. But the fact that they were none was really a problem.

Jacqueline Stewart 15:17

The films of 2015 included celebrated performances from Black actors, including Will Smith, Idris Elba, and Michael B. Jordan. And in the directing category, many expected that Ava DuVernay would be nominated for Selma.

Reggie Hudlin 15:31

And we knew that in less than an hour, we were going to go down to a room full of press from around the world. And we were going to announce these nominees, and then there would be a question-and-answer period. So what were we going to say? Uh, and this is the situation where you know, you're really happy to be in the room where it happens. And I said, Look, we we can't pretend like this is anything other than what it is. We just have to be honest about it, we have to be honest about our disappointment, and no disrespect to, you know, the people who are nominated who, you know, deserve it. But-- So then we go down, and they read the nominees. And then we start doing press. And the first couple of questions are kind of conventional questions that you, you expect, and you go, maybe they won't ask. [laughs] You know, cause you're just, you're just grasping for any hope. And then sure enough, the questions turn. And then that's the whole conversation, right? And everyone's just talking about it. And it's clearly, this is the story. This is going to be the story of this Oscars. So uh, I get back home after that, and I see my wife, who was a very high-level publicist, and she goes, Well what are you going to do? I mean, this is a really tough spot for you. And I said, Well, we're gonna do the show. And she goes really? You don't feel exposed? And I said, No, I mean, you know, this is, this is the job. This is the assignment. You know, I'm producing the Oscars, and I'm a Black man producing the Oscars. And, and, uh you know, there's a Black woman who hired me and I have a Black host. And, you know, you know, we'll we'll figure this out.

Jacqueline Stewart 17:20

Hudlin says the first thing he wanted to do, after the nominees were announced, was talk with his host.

Reggie Hudlin 17:27

Challenge was we couldn't find Chris. Right? So uh, he had kind of gone off the radar.

Jacqueline Stewart 17:33

[laughing] What?

Reggie Hudlin 17:34

So after a couple of days, the phone rang, and it was Chris. I was like, Hey, Chris! [laughing] He goes, Hey, man. And basically, the entire world had, you know, really been calling him and putting a lot of pressure on him. And he just wanted to just talk one on one. And we talked about it. And, you know, we decided, I mean, basically, what would Sidney Poitier do. What did Sidney Poitier do? Right? When Sidney Poitier was the first Black man to be nominated, the first Black man to win. That was an otherwise all white movie theater. Right? He didn't protest by staying home. He showed up, because by showing up, he represented for all of us. And there's no way we can do any less than what Sidney Poitier did.

Jacqueline Stewart 18:32

Well, that raises such a great question about the people who said they were not going to show up. And were encouraging other Black folks not to watch. How did you feel about those voices?

Jacqueline Stewart 18:44

Soon after the nominees were released, director Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett Smith announced that they would not attend the ceremony.

Reggie Hudlin 18:52

Well, it it was complicated. I mean, look, everyone has their own response. Everyone has their own sense of strategy about how to deal with the situation. But I felt before we dealt with the fact that there was calls for a boycott, which was in fact, going to be very successful. I called for a meeting of the Board of Governors because I wanted to speak with them about it. And they said, Okay, well, we've got a meeting set for next Tuesday. I said, No, we can't wait for next Tuesday. I don't know that we'll have a show next Tuesday. Uh, we need to have a meeting immediately. So we set a meeting for the next day. And uh, David and I went, but David said, you got this [laughs] Reggie. So I got in front of the board. And I said, you know, look, we've got a real challenge ahead of us because here's the thing you need to understand about today's movie stars. Uh, today's movie stars, have Black friends who are movie stars. And they know just how talented their Black friends who weren't nominated are and how deserving those Black friends are. And this is unacceptable to them. And so, right now, I can't book any more presenters for the show.

Jacqueline Stewart 20:11

Wow.

Reggie Hudlin 20:11

Nor can I confirm the people we've already booked. Because no one wants to show up. No one wants to look like they're aiding and abetting an unfair process. So I said, Look, we can't change the outcome of this year. But we can fix what's wrong with our process. So this never happens again.

Jacqueline Stewart 20:35

Wow.

Reggie Hudlin 20:36

Because if we're not nominating the best, and the brightest talents in our business, we're not fulfilling what the Oscars should be. And if we could announce that we've made these changes, so that this would never happen again, I think people could feel comfortable participating in the show. And to the Academy's credit, that's exactly what happened.

Jacqueline Stewart 21:01

Cheryl Boone Isaacs issued a statement, saying she was heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion among the nominees. And that while changes have been made in recent years to diversify the Academy's membership, that quote, we need to do more and better and more quickly.

Reggie Hudlin 21:18

There were so many ideas about fixing so many flaws in the system. And they were all agreed to, and that allowed us to continue to put the show together.

Jacqueline Stewart 21:32

A week after the nominations, at a special meeting, the Board of Governors approved a goal that would result in a targeted focus on membership selection. The aim: to double the number of women and people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in the Academy by 2020. Again, this is then Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs 21:53

And you'll- many times uh, through the years, people would say to me, you must have had a hard time with the board. But I did not have a hard time with the board at all about trying to get these changes. Not at all. There were people throughout our membership- I still have my hate mail, which will, I'm ruining the organization. I used to be proud to be a member. I'm not anymore. I remember one person saying to me, I don't know what they want. We voted for 12 Years a Slave a few years ago. So you know, whenever people would have those conversations with me, I'd pull them aside and say, Look, I need you to talk about that. Because clearly you are missing- you are missing this in a major way. And I would do that. And also with a couple of the letters, I would have my assistant- you call them, have them come in, we're going to sit down and talk.

Jacqueline Stewart 22:53

And when it came to the night of the awards in 2016, Chris Rock devoted his entire opening monologue to the Oscars So White controversy.

Reggie Hudlin 23:02

The important thing is that you can't let a crisis go to waste. You have to take advantage of that opportunity to make things better.

Jacqueline Stewart 23:13

This is Reggie Hudlin.

Reggie Hudlin 23:15

Because when you look at the incredible winners that we've had since those changes, no one goes, oh, Regina King or Sam Jackson or any of those uh, amazing people who have won Oscars. W- well, of course they're deserving. Well, of course, they're long overdue. Everyone- No one thinks that there's something wrong. It's right. It feels right to everybody. Ev- everybody goes, Hey, Jordan Peele. Yeah, of course, he deserved that award, [laughs] you know. So it's- what we did was we just made the system better.

Jacqueline Stewart 23:53

In 2017, the Oscars had one of its most diverse slates of acting nominations ever. Seven of the 20 nominees were people of color. That had only happened once before in 2007. And in 2021, there were a record breaking nine actors of color nominated. But it hasn't been all steady progress. The 2020 awards saw a near repeat of 2015 and 2016. Cynthia Erivo was the only person of color nominated in the four acting categories that year. When it comes to Academy membership, there's been a continued push to bring in more members from diverse backgrounds and new inclusion requirements for Best Picture contenders were announced in 2020, that will go into effect in 2024.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs 24:40

I think [laughing] most folks who are excluded, when whenever we see any sort of positiveness- more inclusion in maybe a new television show, or a movie that had a diverse cast of characters, that we think, okay, look at this, it's going to get better, it's going to be. And that doesn't last that very long. And then it starts to close. And this time, I felt, and I certainly spoke with others, this now is not going to close... And I feel that those years at the Academy and with Oscars, [music] has done a lot to keep the doors open. Doesn't make it perfect. It just means it's open. Doesn't mean you sit back on your heels either. But there's opportunity to continue to grow. [music out]

Jacqueline Stewart 26:04

[theme music] The Academy Museum Podcast is written and hosted by me, Jacqueline Stewart. This episode was produced by Monica Bushman. The Academy Museum Podcast team includes Antonia Cereijido, Victoria Alejandro, Kimberly Stevens and Monica Bushman. This show was a production of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in collaboration with LAist Studios. Mixing by E. Scott Kelly. Our theme music was composed by Nicolas Britell. Antonia Cereijido and Leo G are the executive producers for LAist Studios. Our podcast website LAist.com/podcast is designed by Andy Cheatwood, and the digital and marketing teams at LAist Studios. The Academy Museum marketing team created our branding. Thanks to the team at the Academy Museum, including Shawn Anderson, Peter Castro, Stephanie Sykes and Matt Youngner. And to our Academy colleagues, Randy Haberkamp and Claire Lockhart. Thanks also to the team at LAist Studios, including Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, Andy Orozco, Michael Cosentino and Leo G. Academy Museum digital engagement platforms, including this podcast are sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. [music out]

Transcribed by https://otter.ai