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Just another diversity piece

| Tuesday, February 23, 2016

diversity-banner-webJanice Chung | The Observer

Sportswriter Bill Simmons has spitballed the idea that the NBA MVP trophy should weigh differently according to the significance of the accomplishments achieved by the recipient. For example, Michael Jordan’s 1996 MVP would weigh 40 pounds, while Derrick Rose’s 2011 award would only weigh 10. It’s an interesting idea — trying to more clearly demonstrate the historical significance of a player’s season in a way a simple title can’t.

What if we applied the same idea to pop-culture awards?

Would the 2000 Academy Award for Best Picture, awarded to “Gladiator,” weigh as much as the one from 1943 awarded to “Casablanca”?

More recently, how would the scales tilt if we put Kendrick Lamar’s album “To Pimp a Butterfly” on one side and Taylor Swift’s “1989” on the other?

According to the online review aggregator Metacritic, “TPAB” was the best album of the last 10 years. “1989” didn’t even crack the top 40 best-reviewed albums of 2014. Last week, Kendrick Lamar walked into Staples Center, the site of the Grammys, with 11 nominations — the second most all-time behind the King of Pop himself. He walked out with a respectable five awards, sweeping the rap categories and throwing in a win for Best Music Video, an award he shared with Taylor Swift for their work on “Bad Blood.” But it was Swift who left carrying the Album of the Year trophy.

This isn’t a Taylor Swift burn piece — who didn’t love “1989”? — but that decision does pose a question: What are these awards actually awarding?

The Grammys and Academy Awards have very similar voting processes, relying on votes cast by undisclosed “industry insiders,” and both claim to award quality without regard for popularity. This year, one snubbed a powerful, critically-adored album by a black artist, and the other once again demonstrated a blatant lack of diversity. Clearly, something is wrong here.

With all the talk surrounding the Oscars and their lack of nominations for diverse actors, there were a fair number of people within the industry arguing that “whitewashing” reflected a lack of quality work by artists of color. British actor Michael Caine supported this notion, saying, “You can’t say ‘I’m going to vote for him, he’s not very good, but he’s black, I’ll vote for him.’”

If these accolades are truly as objective as they are purported to be, why don’t the nominees and winners consistently reflect the best each respective industry has to offer?

Every year there are perceived snubs, according to both fans and performers, which shouldn’t be the case in an objective ranking. An objective ranking should definitely not be accused of racial bias. Yet last year, there was an uproar when the film “Selma” received heaps of praise from critics, but neither its black star, David Oyelowo, nor its black female director, Ava DuVernay, received a nomination.

On Monday, the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released a comprehensive study of diversity in film and television. The results aren’t pretty, but they are eye-opening. Men out-represented women by at least two-to-one in all positions — in front of the camera, behind it and on the executive board. Only 28.3 percent of shows featured “underrepresented speaking characters.” Of the U.S. population as a whole, “underrepresented” peoples make up 37.9 percent. Film was always the worst offender of this racial and gender discrepancy, beating out both traditional TV and streaming services. All in all, very few studios in film or television achieved a rating of “fully inclusive” for even one category.

So what does the report have to do with this week’s Oscars? Doesn’t that data point to a systemic problem, one that an all-white list of nominees for major awards showcases? I mean, the proportion of victorious black actors is commensurate with their percentage within the U.S. population, so the Academy Awards have done a pretty good job given the circumstances. Right? Nope.

What if we weighed cultures themselves? “Non-Hispanic black” Americans make up just 12.2 percent of the population according to the 2010 census. Barely more than one in 10.

But culture is not quantitative. The cultural impact of African-Americans goes way beyond the size of their population. From athletes to music to fashion, every aspect of American culture is influenced by “black culture.” The same goes for “Hispanic culture” and “Asian culture.” The same goes for “LGBTQ culture.” Portions and ratios cannot and, more importantly, should not define the limits of cultural significance.

This is why the Academy Awards and Grammys are tarnishing their respective industries. They fail to recognize the weight of the cultures that have helped make them what they are today.

The Annenberg report outlines a few “solutions for change,” which are basically race and gender quotas for writers and directors. Ultimately, though, this is a systemic problem, one that demands more than quotas and more diverse voting bodies. Both the film and record industries need to start by rewarding racial diversity and encouraging discussions of race and gender. They need to do more to motivate and sponsor young, underrepresented writers, directors and executives, starting in college, if not earlier. They need to support diversity-focused film festivals that show off the best that non-white, non-straight and non-male filmmakers and actors have to offer. They need to act before popular opinion forces them to act.

It is time for Hollywood to do more than offer lip service to diversity, to do more than nominate token diversity pieces.

It’s time to fix things.

In all likelihood, the NBA won’t incorporate Simmons’s idea for heavier trophies to denote historical significance, but when you watch the Academy hand out Oscars on Sunday, remember that those awards could have carried a lot more weight.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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