What began as a tweet by writer and activist April Reign in 2015 has mobilized the world into a long-needed serious conversation about minority representation in Hollywood. Why, year after year, aren’t more of us nominated in top awards categories for work in front of and behind the camera? Why have people of color, women and disabled people been deemed nearly invisible by the Academy?
Reign, managing editor of Broadwayblack.com, says her intention is to expose the need for Hollywood to be more inclusive. She spoke with ESSENCE about fixing Tinseltown's diversity problem, supporting Black awards shows like the BET Awards and the NAACP Image Awards, and using social media as a tool for mobilizing.
Did you have any idea this would become such an important hashtag when you first tweeted it?
No, there was no way to have expected this thing to be international the way it is. I was sitting in my family room watching the nominations last year and it was frustrating. I just tweeted out, "#OscarsSoWhite, they asked to touch my hair." That was my very first tweet. I was just sort of being jaunty about it and here we are a year later and yesterday I did interviews for Ireland and New Zealand and Australia and London. It's been a crazy, crazy run.
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Were the Oscars something that you had paid attention to before?
I watch the Oscars every year. I watch the build up, the pre show and everything with the red carpet and all of that. I've been watching the Oscars for 30 years or more and then last year I really had just had enough. I said, ‘No more.’
What do you say to people who say, ‘Why not just be more supportive of the BET Awards or NAACP Awards?’
Why aren't we? We should because they have stood the test of time and have been supportive of Black people and people of color. I hope to see more people of color, and the bigger-named stars, coming back to those award shows. I think that we can operate on parallel track: We can support our own, and we should first and foremost, but we can also take the Academy and Hollywood studio heads to task because they are not recognizing us enough. The diversity problem in mainstream film is still such a big issue.
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How do you feel about this being framed as a Black issue, and not an overall issue about representation of all people of color in Hollywood?
I just want to make clear that this is not just a race issue. This is an issue that affects women. It affects all people of color, not just Black people. It affects different sexual orientations, it affects the disabled people. Everybody should be concerned about representation, and I'm happy to see people like George Clooney, Michael Moore and others speaking out because it really shouldn't be ours to fix. It seems to be the onus is always on people of color to complain and help fix it. This is one we can't fix. We can keep calling attention to it until it is fixed. I'm not using the word racism because I think that shuts people down. Regardless of what my personal thoughts are with respect to actors who are White, I'm not saying that anything is racist. I'm saying that they need to be more inclusive.
Will you be watching or boycotting the Oscars this year?
I think we may reach out to a few people because we've got some other ideas for counter programming on Oscars night. As movie-goers we really should have the final say with our dollars in choosing what we see and what we don't. I'm hoping that we make that point with our viewership on Oscars night. No, I'm not going to the Oscars. I think Rev. Al Sharpton is [boycotting] and that's his thing. I'm not in communication with him. I think it can be a multi-faceted approach. I did not watch the Oscars last year. We watched, and live tweeted, Coming to America instead and that movie was very purposefully chosen because it has a majority Black cast but it still resonated with everyone. It doesn’t matter your gender, your sexual orientation, your race or whatever; everybody has quotable from Coming To America. We hope to do something similar but on an even bigger scale this year. That may be me boycotting. If that's the word you want to use, that's fine. I won't be out there in front of the Chinese Theater, wherever it is this year. I won't be in LA as far as I know.
What were some of your favorite films this year?
People keep asking me, ‘Who got snubbed? Who do you think should have been nominated?’ I'm not doing that because to do that would say that someone who received a nomination was less than deserving and that's not the point of #OscarsSoWhite at all. What I will say is that I think more opportunities need to be out there. For example, a film like Tangerine which was about trans women was overlooked by the Academy but then Eddie Redmayne can play a trans woman in The Danish Girl and get a nomination. Then the question becomes, ‘Why couldn't a trans woman have played that role?’ Those are the kinds of points that I'm trying to get across with all of this.
Some have criticized social media of nurturing armchair activism and here we are with something that began as a tweet.
Social media started this and now we've got the Academy President issuing statements saying she is also frustrated and disappointed. We've had Jada Pinkett Smith and Don Cheadle talking about it. You start with [a tweet] and you change the world; that was never my intention from my family room but if it means that more people of color get opportunities, then I'm with it. That's for all movements. This is how we communicate. How else would we do it except on social media now? With me that's Black Lives Matter, it's everybody. This is the best way to reach the people and make a difference. That argument falls on deaf ears with me.
This interview had been edited and condensed.