One of the narratives that will dominate the Academy Awards ceremony this Sunday is how white or not-so-white the winners will ultimately end up shaking out to be. Already this year has made history, particularly as seen with the number of nonwhite nominees spread out amongst all of the acting categories.
A huge reason—perhaps the primary reason—we’ve gone from such paltry representation at the Oscars for two years in a row to a greater leap forward this year is April Reign, the activist who first started the influential #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and reignited a movement towards inclusion in Hollywood. In a recent episode of the Slate podcast Represent, Aisha Harris had a conversation with Reign about her thoughts on this year’s nominees, her collaboration with other activists, and what needs to happen in order for progress to continue. Below is a transcribed and edited excerpt from the interview. You can check out the full episode in the audio player below.
Aisha Harris: You’re energized by the stuff that’s happening behind the scenes. What are you seeing from your standpoint, of what’s happening [there]? How are people mobilizing and making things—hopefully—better for everyone?
April Reign: We’ve seen a lot of changes worldwide, actually. Germany is discussing diversity or lack thereof in their films. BAFTA, which is London’s equivalent of the Oscars, has new diversity requirements for two of their film categories, requiring the nominees of those films to be inclusive. That’s something that we’ve never seen before and I’m hoping that other award organizations pick that up. We see that studios are doing a somewhat better job of looking for people from marginalized communities to tell their stories.
There are individuals that are making strides, too: J.J. Abrams, for example, has said that he is going to be making significant changes within his own production company Bad Robot and also ensuring that diversity is discussed openly in the meetings with studio executives—who can greenlight films. We’ve also seen that there has been a myriad of emerging filmmaker and mentoring programs for young filmmakers from traditionally underrepresented communities—that didn’t exist two years ago—which is fantastic because, again, you want to start off with someone who is relatively young in the business and provide sponsorship and mentoring to them so that they can grow up to be an Ava DuVernay or whomever. So I’m encouraged by all of those things that are happening now.
With all of that happening, how included are you in these discussions about it? I know yesterday, I was following you on Twitter and Al Sharpton tweeted about the march that he led at the Oscars last year, and he also said that this year the nominations reflect a real, concrete view of what American cinema really looks like. But obviously, people came for him pretty quickly and were like How could you not point out that April Reign is the one who started #OscarsSoWhite and is basically the catalyst for why you did that march? Has he since reached out to you? You say he’d never reach out to you before, but has he since reached out to you, or has anyone from his team reached out to you, about what you can do next to move this forward?
Yes. Since that happened yesterday, his team did reach out. We will discuss, perhaps, working together—but we have not had any conversations. I haven’t talked to Rev. Sharpton personally. And I’m sort of a party of one. What he did last year with the boycott and I guess what he plans to do this year—I think every person who speaks out in support of diversity and inclusion is helpful, and I am happy to work with any person or organization who wants to further this campaign.
Has the Academy [of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences] or the academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs reached out to you at all, in the two years since the #OscarsSoWhite campaign was started?
No, they haven’t.
Interesting. It seems like she implemented all of those changes for the academy last year, in which they changed the rules and the guidelines for those who are accepted as members into the academy, with the intent of broadening the age ranges and ethnicities and all demographics within who can vote for the Oscars. It seems a little weird that she’s never reached out to you or the academy hasn’t at all even though that was clearly a direct response to what you did. Is that frustrating, or is that something you let roll off your back? How does that feel for you?
It’s really not something on which I focus. The goal is to have more marginalized people tell their stories within the entertainment industry, so I am always very humbled and appreciative when someone says, Let’s remember that April created the hashtag. But this whole movement and the changes that we’re seeing could not have happened with just me alone. It was everyone raising their voices, saying, We want to see movies that reflect our experience, and we’re not going to support with our hard-earned ticket dollars until we do. I appreciate that.
The last couple of years for the Academy Awards—the actual presentation—we engaged in counterprogramming. So we were live-tweeting a movie during the Oscars, and we saw that the academy, the last two years, had their lowest ratings in a very long time. We think that we may have had something to do with that and the disappointment with the nominees overall. We’ll see what happens this year. As I’ve always said, I stand ready to work with anyone who is interested in continuing this conversation and making concrete change, whether that is an organization in New Zealand or the academy itself or anyone in between.
What do you think about the academy’s [new membership rules]?
I find them encouraging. So 683 people were invited to join the academy, and it was their biggest by far and most diverse by far class that they have ever had. However, even with the 700 new members, the academy is still 89 percent white and 73 percent male. The average age is still in the early 60s. So clearly there is more work to be done. President Boone Isaacs has said that she wants to double the number of women and double the number of people of color within the Academy ranks by 2020. Even with 700 new people, it seems that she may fall short, just percentage-wise, with respect to, I think, women. And that was something that she did on her own, so I think we’re going to hold her to that since that’s something that she volunteered that she would do.
But I think that every little bit helps. What we know from the anonymous reports that they do every year is that academy members are not required to view films before they vote. While I have always said through #OscarsSoWhite that this is not a quota system and that these awards should be based on merit, you cannot say that it is a meritocracy if they’re not voting on the quality of the performance or the film itself. If they’re not, what are they using as a basis for voting? Is it implicit bias? Is it, as one anonymous academy member said, the fact that they couldn’t pronounce Lupita Nyong’o and so they weren’t interested in even watching the film? Is it that they saw a great ad in Variety a week before the votes were due, and that’s what stuck out in their head? Is it that they believe that a director or actor or whomever was due for an award just based on their body of work, not necessarily for this particular performance, and so they wanted to cast their vote in favor of that person?
I think that some changes can be made to the way the voting structure is set up as well, and I think that having more diverse voices within the academy hopefully will make some changes from within the organization. I will stand on the outside and do what I can to make changes with the support of other people frustrated with what they see.