Racial Inequality and the Oscars

January 31, 2016

In January 2016, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced its Oscar Award nominations. For the second year in a row, no actors of color were nominated. This has led to controversy about racial inequality in the film industry. In this lesson, students learn about the controversy, identify different points of view about it, take a stand on it, and support their stance.      

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • think about what movie characters mean to them
  • read about the controversy over racial inequality in the Academy Awards
  • analyze what different people have said about the controversy
  • identify where they stand on the issue



Tell students that you are going to read aloud a series of statements. Ask students to stand up after each statement that they agree with. Then read aloud each of the following statements, pausing after each to allow students time to stand up.

  • I like going to the movies.
  • I admire some of the characters that I see in the movies.
  • I identify with some of the characters in the movies.
  • I look for people in the movies who look like me.
  • I often see people in the movies that I can relate to.
  • I often see movie characters dealing with situations that remind me of real life.

Next, ask students if they noticed any patterns in the responses. Share with students this quote from Professor Roxane Gay's article in the New York Times, "The Oscars and Hollywood’s Race Problem" from January 22, 2016.

"...[P]eople of color want to see their lives reflected in the movies they watch."  

Explain that Roxane Gay made this comment in discussing a recent controversy over the movie industry’s failure to acknowledge and honor people of color in the industry. In this lesson, we’ll explore this controversy.

Next, have students read—or read aloud to students—the following Background Reading so they can learn more about the controversy.


#OscarsSoWhite: Background Reading

Every year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences holds a competition. People in the movie industry nominate and later vote for films and people who do various filmmaking jobs (actor, director, costume designer, etc.) for awards. The winners receive statues, called Oscars, and their films get a big boost because they have been identified as excellent in some way.

What difference do Academy Awards (also known as Oscars) make? More than you might think. On one level, they make the award nominees and recipients feel good.  An Oscar nomination or award is a way of telling peers, fans, and audience members that this person is very good at what they do. An Oscar also serves as a kind of movie recommendation: When a movie - or its actors, director, etc. - get an Oscar, it’s a way of saying, "This is a good movie. You should think about seeing it."

Since the Academy Awards can make a big difference in which movies people see, who gets nominated for them can be quite important. Recognition can go a long way in helping someone’s career, in increasing profits for the movie-makers, and ultimately on deciding what kind of movies will be made in the future.

An Academy Award can also affect how audience members think about those who make movies, particularly the actors, since they are the most visible people in the movie world. That’s why so many people are upset that in 2016, as in 2015, every actor who was nominated for an Oscar was white. #OscarsSoWhite has become, for the second year running, a protest against the omission of people of color from the prestigious award nominations.

Some prominent African Americans—including director Spike Lee and actor Jada Pinkett-Smith—announced that they would not attend the awards ceremony this year because once again, no people of color were nominated for awards. Following their announcements, a lot of other film people weighed in on the topic.  

Some noted that not only are people of color often excluded from film awards, they’re greatly underrepresented in top film roles. The Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA examined 174 films produced in 2013. Of these films, less than 17% of the lead roles were held by people of color, although people of color made up over 34% of the population that year.  Film studio heads were 94% white and 100% male.  Yet people of color make up over half of frequent movie-goers.

The controversy over #OscarsSoWhite prompted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which runs the Academy Awards) to change the criteria they use to decide who gets to be a member of their organization. Their goal is to get a more racially balanced group of people involved in the process of nominating and voting on awards for films.

Chris Rock, who will host the awards ceremony on February 28, 2016, has announced that he plans to use the controversy in his jokes, to tweak the Academy on the subject of #OscarsSoWhite.  As far as long-term impact of this controversy, no one knows yet.

Considering a Variety of Views

Below are eight quotes. Print out each on a separate sheet of paper and post the papers in different places in the classroom. Divide the class into groups and assign each group to a quote. Give the groups time to read and discuss the quote, guiding them with questions including:

  • What point is the speaker making?
  • What does the speaker think about the issue of diversity in movies?
  • Do you agree with the speaker? If so, why? If not, why not?

Have the groups move from quote to quote until all the groups have read and discussed all the quotes.


The Quotes



"I think it’s ludicrous. We have to make up our minds; either we want to have segregation or integration. If we don’t want segregation, then we need to get rid of channels like BET [Black Entertainment Television] and the BET Awards, and the [NAACP] Image Awards, where you’re only awarded if you’re black. If it were the other way around, we would be up in arms. It’s a double standard [...] Just like there shouldn’t be a Black History Month. We’re American, that’s it."

- Stacey Dash, actor



"It's no coincidence I'm writing this as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's birthday. ...For too many years when the Oscars nominations are revealed, my office phone rings off the hook with the media asking me my opinion about the lack of African-Americans and this year was no different. For once (maybe), I would like the media to ask all the white nominees and studio heads how they feel about another all-white ballot. If someone has addressed this and I missed it then I stand mistaken."

- Spike Lee, director and screenwriter



"At the Oscars ... people of color are always welcomed to give out awards ... even entertain. But we are rarely recognized for our artistic accomplishments. Should people of color refrain from participating altogether?"

- Jada Pinkett-Smith, actor



"The #Oscars. The White BET Awards."

- Chris Rock, comedian



"[A boycott of the Oscars] is racist against whites."

- Charlotte Rampling, actor



"We should have a sit-down with the Academy, but we should also have a sit-down with the film studios because we’re not getting the budgets that we need to get that kind of consideration."

- Marlon Wayans, comedian



"In the end you can’t vote for an actor because he’s Black. 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.’"

- Michael Caine, actor



"If we’re going to boycott the Oscars, we also need to boycott the movie studios determined to ignore the box office success of movies featuring people of color. We need to boycott the people who are so reluctant to produce movies made by people of color. We need to boycott this system that refuses to acknowledge life beyond the white experience as rule and not exception..."

- Roxane Gay, in the New York Times



After students have discussed all  the quotes, reconvene the class and ask:  What were the main points made in the quotations?

List students’ responses on chart paper or the board. Encourage students to share some of their groups’ insights with the class.

What conclusions, if any, can you and your students draw about the quotations?


Ask students where they stand in the controversy about the Academy Awards.

Have them write their responses in a five-paragraph essay, using information and analysis from this lesson to support their point of view.