Al Sharpton Calls for Oscars Boycott: "We Are Supporting an Industry That Has Locked Us Out" (Q&A)

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"To me, it is clear that they think they can get away with this as a pattern," the civil rights leader says.

Rev. Al Sharpton is frustrated with Hollywood's diversity problem, and he's turning his attention toward ratings and advertiser dollars by urging potential viewers of the upcoming Academy Awards telecast to "turn the dial."

The president and founder of National Action Network has continued to take aim at the industry and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences over its current roster of Oscar nominees of which there are no actors or directors of color in the running for statuettes for the second straight year. 

Though his NAN announced on Tuesday that it would be galvanizing support to "launch a serious campaign for people to tune out of the Oscars," Sharpton first spoke out about the issue on Jan. 14, the same morning the nominations were announced. 

“Hollywood is like the Rocky Mountains, the higher up you get the whiter it gets. And this year’s Academy Awards will be yet another Rocky Mountain Oscars. Yet again, deserving black actors and directors were ignored by the Academy — which reinforces the fact that there are few if any blacks with real power in Hollywood," Sharpton said last week.

Sharpton hasn't let up since and is already at work striking up a dialogue with leading activists and clergy for a TV blackout of the Oscarcast, which is scheduled for Feb. 28 and will be hosted by Chris Rock. The boycott comes on the heels of Monday's statements from Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith criticizing the Academy and pulling out of Oscar-related appearances and support. 

Sharpton's roster of supporters already includes L.A. National Action Network president Rev. K.W. Tulloss, Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable President Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of Project Islamic Hope Najee Ali, Weller Street Baptist Church, Compton NAACP and other civil rights leaders. He declined to name Hollywood insiders — actors, directors and others — who he is targeting with the new campaign.

In an interview with THR, Sharpton said he hasn't seen enough change from the Academy or those in positions of power, so now he's turning his attention toward ratings and advertiser dollars.

You were one of the first to speak out following the nominations. How closely have you been tracking the diversity issue in Hollywood?

I’ve been tracking it since last year. National Action Network and I have been tracking it since last year when the nominations came out very similarly. And we were told over and over again (by the Academy) that, ‘You’re right. Give us time and we will work on diversity. we want to have consistent meetings with civil rights leaders and do forums and correct it.’ Then the Amy Pascal issue came up with the emails and she flew to New York and met with us. [The former Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman's private emails surfaced during the Sony hack, revealing racially insensitive remarks about President Barack Obama.] We talked about how the industry had no blacks that could greenlight films, so let’s work on that. Nothing came of either, so here we are again. To me, it is clear that they think they can get away with this as a pattern. We must escalate our feelings and we must escalate our activism to now, in my view, affect the bottom line because mere conversations and appeals don’t seem to reap any benefits or an change for the community at large. You must remember that people of color are 40 percent of movie ticket buyers. We are not asking for favors here, we are supporting an industry that has now — between last year and this year and the Amy Pascal incident — locked us out. They have a policy they won’t correct. Even the president of the Academy says that something needs to be done.

You mentioned Amy Pascal. You met with her and you’ve also taken meetings in Hollywood when issues of race have come up. What is your impression of how Hollywood treats and/or includes black talent, both on the creative side or the executive side?

They treat the talent as workers and not as people that ought to be regarded and protected in a process that is fair and equal. Spike Lee was on my syndicated radio show this morning and he made a point that I totally agree with. I’m not saying that we want to select who is nominated or wins, but if you are telling me out of best actor, best actress, best supporting actor, best supporting actress — out of 40 slots, two years in a row that there are no blacks and no browns rose to a level of being considered, that’s hard to believe. That’s unacceptable. Then I have the right to say, ‘You know what, you can do what you want, but you won’t do it with my support.’ Let’s see if advertisers and others think that you are as attractive to pay those high fees if they know that sizable portions of the population will not be watching your show the night it airs. … (Advertisers) don’t want to be identified with institutional patterns of discrimination.

What should have been nominated? What films and/or performances do you think deserved recognition this year?

There are a number of movies that certainly have reached a level of consideration, from Straight Outta Compton to Creed. I would even say Concussion. They are good movies with good actors and supporting actors and actresses. I have not talked to any of the artists, I’m not representing them and I have no vested interest. But I certainly cannot fathom how out of 40 slots, none of them two years in a row would come up as a nominee.

Your strategy is to affect ratings and advertiser dollars with this boycott. To have a significant impact here, audiences of all races will have to turn the channel. How will you approach that?

As we pick up steam, that’s why we are engaging over the next two days in conference and get other influencers on board. Starting with civil rights leaders and activists and ministers and those who work in the Latino community and those who work in the progressive white community and people on radio who can influence masses of people. As you go across the board and people understand that they don’t have to march, they don’t have to picket, they don’t have to go to Hollywood — all they have to do is turn the dial. If enough people turn the dial, you can move that dial with the Nielsen ratings a couple of points, it will send shivers up the spine of many of the advertisers. Next year those advertisers will come back next year saying, ‘Don’t come with those high prices.’ I have found in terms of these kinds of things, that you don’t need to cut things in half, you just need to register just enough.

Los Angeles was the top-rated market for the Oscars in 2015. Is that factoring into your strategy?

It factors very much so. Aside from leading National Action Network, I do a radio show and a weekly TV show, so I know well about how to read markets. We will concentrate on the markets that will make the most difference and getting those markets to tune out to what is unfair. Tune it out. If you hit some major markets, then (the Academy) will have a real problem in terms of an overall (ratings) number.

Dr. Ben Carson released a statement today saying that “American people have far more important concerns than a few Hollywood elites handing themselves awards.” Do you agree?

I would then ask Dr. Carson if he would then be open to being a part of this tune out. If he thinks it’s not important, then he ought not be watching. I didn’t think he and I would agree before the presidential election. My thing is, if they come by default or because they are supporters, everybody that doesn’t turn it on, we will gladly appreciate.

Is diversifying the membership going to be enough here to solve the problem long-term?

It could be a start. It should be a conversation that’s had, but they haven’t even done that. We heard that last year.

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