Political Strategist Donna Brazile: "I Have a Dream... for the Oscars" (Guest Column)

donna brazile - H 2016
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donna brazile - H 2016

Donna Brazile is a veteran political strategist who currently serves as vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and frequently appears on CNN and ABC.

It is with good reason that Hollywood is called a “dream factory.” Since the very inception of motion pictures, movies have fed our dreams — especially the dreams of young people. It is vitally important that no child ever feel left out of those dreams on account of their race, creed, sexual orientation or gender. 

Right now, the people of Flint, Michigan — a predominately African-American city — cannot get safe tap water, and young black people are being killed and imprisoned all over this country because of a flawed system of justice. It may seem flippant to be upset about the lack of African-American nominees for the Academy Awards, but the right to dream is as vital as any right enumerated in the Constitution.  

The announcement earlier this month that, for the second straight time, there was not a single African-American actor nominated in the four main acting categories prompted a huge backlash under the #OscarsSoWhite banner. That led to a call for an Oscars boycott from many celebrities including Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith and Spike Lee.

Reacting quickly, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced steps to address the problem by expanding and diversifying the membership of the Academy. Boone Isaacs, elected in 2013, is the first African-American to serve as the Academy’s president. Her leadership on this issue should be applauded.

The Academy does not publicly disclose the names of its members. Membership comes only from being nominated for an Oscar or by being sponsored by two current members. And membership is for life. Not surprisingly, the membership has grown somewhat ossified over the decades. In 2012, the Los Angeles Times determined that the membership then was 94% white, 77% male, and 86% over the age of 50. Not the most diverse group — the Academy makes the US Supreme Court look like the Wu Tang Clan.

The announced changes affect member voting status with the goal of doubling the number of women and people of color in the Academy by the year 2020. No longer will members automatically have voting status for life. Now, voting status will be in effect for 10 years and is renewable if the member was active in the industry during that decade. In addition, three new seats will be added to the Board of Governors. These changes are a good start toward a more inclusive Academy, and ultimately a more diverse entertainment industry.

Not too long ago, Major League Baseball and the NFL faced similar problems with the lack of minorities in managerial and head coaching positions. It might not be intentional racism, but, like the Oscars, the choices and decisions are made by a relatively small number of rather old people who don't exactly have diversity at the front of their minds. If “Good Old Boy” networks aren’t necessarily intentionally discriminatory, Good Old Boys still tend to know and appreciate the work of other Good Old Boys. You very quickly end up with an exclusionary system, whether that was the intention or not.

Baseball and football have taken proactive steps to solve the problem and have made significant progress. The Academy has now embarked on a path that will hopefully also produce positive results with enough effort and intent. 

Despite all the other pressing concerns for women and people of color in this society, the lack Academy Award nominees needs to be taken seriously. Movies and TV are a reflection (a mirror, rightly or wrongly) of who we are as a society. When we look up at the silver screen, or the TV screen, or the Oscar ceremony, we all want to see something of ourselves up there. That is especially important for the next generation, who will grow up in a much more diverse society.

The movies reflect our dreams and aspirations — and dreams and aspirations are very much entwined. One of the most stirring speeches ever given by Dr. Martin Luther King revolved around his statement “I have a dream.” If we are going to create a truly just and fair society, we all need to have an equal right to dream.