Al Sharpton Leads Oscars Protest Rally in Hollywood

Rev. Al Sharpton - H 2016
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Rev. Al Sharpton - H 2016

"This will be the last night of an all-white Oscars," Sharpton vowed at the rally.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Down the street from the Dolby Theatre, Al Sharpton led several dozen demonstrators in protest against a second straight year of all-white acting nominees. Demonstrators held signs reading "Hollywood Must Do Better" and "Shame on You."

"This will be the last night of an all-white Oscars," Sharpton vowed at the rally.

The night's top honor, best picture, is considered one of the most hard-to-call categories. Three major guilds — the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild of America and the Producers Guild of America — have spread their top honors among three films seen as the frontrunners: Alejandro G. Inarritu's frontier epic The Revenant, Adam McKay's financial meltdown tale The Big Short and Tom McCarthy's newsroom drama Spotlight.

The Revenant, buoyed by big box office and a win at the BAFTAs, is seen as the one with the most momentum and has the best odds in Las Vegas. Its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, appears to be a shoo-in to land his first Academy Award in his fifth nomination. Back-to-back best picture wins for director Inarritu, who won last year for Birdman, would be unprecedented.

But the headlines this year haven't been driven by the nominated films and performances nearly as much as the ones that weren't.

The nominees restored the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite to prominence and led Spike Lee (an honorary Oscar winner this year) and Jada Pinkett Smith to announce that they would not attend the show. Several top African-American directors — Ryan Coogler (whose Creed is expected to earn Sylvester Stallone a best supporting actor) and Ava DuVernay (Selma) — won't be at the Oscars, but will instead host a live benefit in Flint, Mich., for the water-contaminated city.

In a quick response to the growing crisis, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, pushed ahead reforms to the organization intended to diversify its overwhelming white and male membership. But those changes (which included stripping older, out-of-work members of their voting rights) precipitated a backlash of its own. A chorus of Academy members challenged the reforms, while others have cast doubt on how effective the changes will be.

In the turmoil, focus on diversity has spread beyond the Academy — which can only nominate films that get made — to the studios. A report released last Monday by USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism gave a failing grade to all six major studios for their racial, ethnic and gender inclusiveness in front of and behind the camera.

All the while, Rock has remained mum. The comedian, considered one of the most frank commentators on race in America, hasn't granted the usual pre-show interviews. Rock, who first hosted the Oscars in 2005, on Friday mysteriously tweeted a video of television static that he tagged "blackout." ''See you Sunday," he wrote.

How the controversy will affect ratings for ABC is also one of the night's big questions. Last year's telecast, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, slid 16 percent to 36.6 million viewers, a six-year low. While the appeal of seeing Rock face Hollywood's diversity crisis head on should help drive curious viewers, a long night of dutiful speeches on the issue could turn away others more interested in glamour and celebrity.

The Academy has also rolled out a new wrinkle to the show. The Oscars will introduce a new "thank you" crawl for winners in an effort to trim acceptance speeches of long lists of names.

While smaller, independent films have in recent years dominated the Oscars (the last two years were topped by Fox Searchlight releases Birdman and 12 Years a Slave), five of this year's eight best picture nominees come from major studios. That includes the hits The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road, but, alas, not Star Wars: The Force Awakens. J.J. Abrams' movie, the biggest box-office smash of the decade, earned five mentions in technical categories.

Security around Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue is especially heightened because Vice President Joe Biden will be attending to give a special presentation with Lady Gaga aimed at combating sexual violence.