Black Oscar Voter and Past Nominee on Academy: "New Guidelines Are Taking Us in the Right Direction"

Margaret Avery, a member of the actors branch, weighs in on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the response to it.
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Margaret Avery

This piece by Margaret Avery, a member of the Academy's actors branch who is best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in Steven Spielberg's 1985 film 'The Color Purple,' is part of an ongoing series of guest columns by Academy members about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the Academy's response to it.

Being nominated for an Academy Award is one of the most prestigious honors that every actor and actress dreams of experiencing. Nominations and awards show us that we’re appreciated. This can be an industry of rejection — one where it’s easy to forget accomplishments. We all know that Hollywood is a difficult business for everyone, but for the ethnic community, it’s 10 times as hard.

After I received my Academy nomination for The Color Purple, I thought I was going to be put "on the map.” But, in fact, I was unemployed for two years. While any actor can experience this, even after a nomination, there is a difference between a lull in work and being excluded from work. There weren’t any black films and at that time I wasn’t cast in any of the predominantly white films. Roles simply didn’t exist.

We’re seeing more people of color in films now, but there is still work to be done. As a voting Academy member, I love being in a position where I can bring a fresh perspective on inclusion. One of the great privileges of being a member is the ability to prescreen films. In my experience, attending a "mainstream” movie led by non-ethnic talent requires you to arrive 20-40 minutes early just to get a seat. On the other hand, if a film is led by (or is primarily cast) with people of color, attendance isn't always the same — and there could even be rows of empty seats.

I believe these new membership guidelines are taking us in the right direction. Focusing on the composition of the Academy helps us to create an awareness of the need for change. However, the Academy is a direct reflection of Hollywood, and diversity starts at the beginning of the filmmaking process. A lot of films don’t get a green light because of the lack of cultural awareness at the executive level. If we don't see more diversity in film, we won't see more diversity in the Academy. If we don't see more diversity in film, we also won't see diversity in the nominations.

As a black actress who’s approaching 50 years in the business, I know it's time for change, even if it's hard fought. We need more inclusion in every aspect of Hollywood. I’m happy that Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith started the conversation; it's one that we have been having for a long time. To paraphrase Viola Davis, “the only thing that separates people of color from anyone else is opportunity.”

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