Director Spike Lee, who recently received an honorary Oscar for his long career in film — a career that has produced classics like Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and 25th Hour — will not be attending this year's Academy Awards, due to the dearth of nominees of color.
Joining Lee in his boycott is actress Jada Pinkett Smith.
Lee and Pinkett Smith are reacting to the 2016 Oscar nominations, which feature no actors of color for the second year in a row, while also featuring no nominations for any films about people of color.
What's interesting about Lee's comment, however, is that it reveals just how difficult it is to talk about the Oscars' diversity problem. Every time you might suggest that it's a problem with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, you'll likely be directed to systemic problems within the film industry and within America as a whole.
Or, as New York Times film critic A.O. Scott put it in an excellent, must-read discussion of this very question with Manohla Dargis and Wesley Morris:
It’s always possible to pass the buck upward and outward. The Academy’s blunder reflects the structural biases of the movie industry, which in turn reflects deeply embedded racism in the society at large. And no institution is immune.
When problems are that large, it can be easy to become defeatist, to assume that change is impossible. But calling attention to systemic problems is an attempt to provoke change, and trying to make Oscar voters feel a slight amount of shame for ignoring seemingly Oscar-friendly films about people of color (which were out there) at least points to a problem that's worth considering.
But what's being glossed over in the coverage of and reaction to Lee's boycott is that he recognizes, too, that this is a much bigger problem than just the Oscars. And he has a notion for how the industry might overcome that problem — promote more people of color to studio executive suites, using a version of the NFL's Rooney Rule (which requires that football teams must interview applicants of color for open coaching positions).
The Rooney Rule States NFL Teams MUST Interview Minority Candidates For The Positions Of Head Coach And Senior Football Executives Before Hires. Since Being Put In Place Before The 2006 Season, African-American Hires Have Increased. Facebook And Pinterest Have Their Own Version Of The Rooney Rule To Hire Minorities. Why Can't Hollywood Do The Same? It's Worth The Effort Or It Will Be The Same Old Hi-Jinks.
Would the Rooney Rule make Hollywood more diverse? It's impossible to say, but as Lee points out, we won't know until we try. At the very least, in declaring his boycott of the 2016 Oscars, the director is grappling with the problem of diversity in Hollywood, using his visibility to call greater attention to it, and offering up a proposed solution. If systemic change is going to happen, it will happen bit by bit, with little changes around the edges, rather than from people shrugging and saying the problem is too big to solve.