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#OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign: ‘There’s still a lot of work to be done’

88th Annual Academy Awards - Backstage And Audience Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has had a tough year. In January 2016, after it announced the nominees for the 88th Academy Awards, a loud outcry from inside and outside the industry erupted, taking Hollywood to task for its failure to nominate actors and filmmakers of color. It was the second year in a row non-white talent was largely overlooked, leading to boycotts of the award show, star-studded events organized as counterprogramming, and promises from the Academy that it would do better. Even host Chris Rock addressed the controversy the night of the awards, though the reaction to his treatment of the issue was mixed.

A focal point of the controversy was the viral #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, created in 2015 by activist and BroadwayBlack.com managing editor April Reign to take on the lack of inclusion in film. The hashtag crescendoed over social media, starting off as conversation between fans, but eventually gaining enough steam to attract performers like The Weeknd and even video game developers. Using the hashtag, director Spike Lee wrote on Instagram that he would sit out the awards show, writing, “How is it possible for the second consecutive year all 20 contenders under the acting category are white? And let’s not even get into the other branches.”

At first glance, the situation at the Oscars seems to have improved this year. A handful of black men and women, like Mahershala Ali, Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer have been nominated for their work. Jada Pinkett-Smith, who boycotted last year’s ceremony, told Variety that this year’s crop of nominations were “a beautiful thing to see.” However, there’s still work to be done. I recently spoke with Reign about the hashtag, her activism, and why #OscarsSoWhite is still necessary going forward.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The nominees for the Academy Awards were announced last week, and we saw a slew of men and women of color nominated. What were your thoughts after the nominations were announced?

Okay, so there wasn't a slew of men and women of color. There [were] a lot of black people and Dev Patel. This is one of the issues I am dealing with on a regular basis. People say we got all these “diverse” nominees now, so #OscarsSoWhite must be done. But we don't. We have films that reflect the black experience, but there weren't any films that reflect the Latinx experience. We have cultural appropriation of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community. I'm still waiting on [a] romantic comedy from the LGBTQIA community. There's still a lot of work to be done.

That said, it was another step in the right direction with respect to films that reflect the black experience, and I am especially encouraged by the number of nominees [that were] black people behind the camera. So Bradford Young as cinematographer for Arrival, and Joi McMillon as the first black woman editor ever. The fact that we have four adapted screenplays that do recollect the experiences of people of color in Hidden Figures, Lion, Moonlight, and Fences. I think [they] are incredibly important and should be be highlighted, because everything starts on a page, and #OscarsSoWhite is about providing opportunities at all phases of a film’s production.

What is your opinion of the Oscars as an institution? What does it mean to non-white actors?

Well, for better or for worse, the Oscars are seen as the pinnacle in the film industry, and we've seen some mixed results. So, the thought is that when one has “Oscar nominated” or “Oscar winner” after their name, that brings a certain cachet. It makes it easier for an actor or actress to command a higher salary on their next film. Or perhaps they don’t need to audition. They just get a call. But, I don't think that has always translated well for actors and actresses of color. We can name them: Halle Berry, I don't think, has been offered the roles that she should have in the years since she won [for] Monster's Ball. It goes all the way back to Hattie McDaniel. She won playing a maid and a servant and an enslaved woman, and those are the roles she got for the majority of her career. I think everyone wants to be recognized for a job well done, and that's whether you're a fry cook at a fast-food restaurant or an actor or actress or filmmaker who can command millions of dollars per picture. The Oscar is a physical representation of achievement among your peers, but it's not the end of the story.

Since the Academy announced it would make its push for more inclusion in its ranks, do you think our conversations about diversity in Hollywood have overall improved in the last year?

Well, I absolutely believe the conversation should be in the open. And there has been improvement. Last year, Academy president Cheryl Boone-Isaacs invited [the Academy’s] largest and most diverse class ever, with 683 invitations extended. So that is an improvement. However, even with those numbers, the academy is still 89 percent white and 73 percent male, and the average age is still in the early 60s. So more work needs to be done. President Boone-Isaacs stated that she wanted to double the amount of people of color and women in the academy by 2020. And I hope she can do that, because I think it's important to have diverse audiences within the organization pushing for change, just as I am doing from outside the organization.

What kind of early conversations should people in the industry be having to foster diversity? Who should be involved?

Well again, I think we have more leverage every time we have this conversation and don't experience as much pushback as the previous conversations. But we need to expand the table at which the decision makers sit so more diverse voices can be included. I've always said everything starts on the page, so we need to make sure we are mentoring screenwriters from marginalized communities, so their stories are told. And it goes from there all the way through to distribution of films once they’re made.

If a screenwriter says, “I'm going to write a romantic comedy and it's going to star a tall, leggy blonde, 25 to 35 years old,” then that means Zoe Saldana doesn't have a shot. That means Meryl Streep doesn't have a shot being Meryl Streep! So if that is the mindset at that stage, by the time it gets to a producer and executive and actually gets greenlit, no one is thinking Gina Rodriguez should play that role, although I'm sure she absolutely could. It's important that we have those conversations consistently from the beginning. Not only about who should play a role, but who should tell the story behind the camera, and whose story should be told.

What are the blind spots that people may not be prepared for?

One of the big ones is cultural appropriation. So when we see Tilda Swinton in [Doctor Strange], Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, and Matt Damon playing this white savior who goes into a country of a billion people to save them from aliens, as if there is no Asian-American actor in the world that could've played that role… So I think that's a big part of it. We all have our own implicit biases, and that's just people being human. It's when we step out of those biases and think about things from a different frame of reference that we can really have more positive conversations.

With a movie like Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall, there’s also the issue of filmmakers outside of Hollywood coming up against these white savior narratives. How do you imagine industries navigate that problem when cultures don’t look the same?

I think we have to be respectful of that original culture, and make sure we are paying homage to the genre which does whatever we're talking about. So if there's something endemic to a culture, that culture needs to tell that story. They need to be heavily involved. And there are a lot of gray areas. We had Straight Outta Compton [in 2015], which is a movie about a gangster rap group from Compton. But it was written by two white screenwriters. I think it was pretty well done, actually, but part of that, I think, is because there were advisors and consultants through every step of the process to make sure they did it respectfully. I think that's what we need to do going forward.

What’s the value of creating counter-programming events outside big cultural events the Oscars? How powerful are they right now?

I think they're invaluable. It feels like family, and that's what we say: “We're going to watch XYZ as a family.” Because there is a sense of community that is built around certain productions and performances. So I try to do that as much as I possibly can. I think there was an article that came out awhile ago where a whole bunch of showrunners didn't get it — they thought it was stupid, to have people live-tweeting programs. You're leaving money on the table [laughs], and you're not respecting your audience.

Scandal was not an immediate overnight success. I believe that Scandal was saved, in part, because of the support it received in social media. We've seen that so many times, so now I have various shows reaching out to me, asking me to live-tweet, because I have a platform to bring awareness to the show and hopefully bring more followers and more ratings and watchers of the show. I think it's incredibly important both for us and consumers, but also for the corporations or the studios, to respect the power of social media.

With #OscarsSoWhite existing mostly on social media, you’ve certainly faced harassment and criticism. How do you navigate criticism from trolls and even the industry itself?

Well, Twitter has had its problems with harassment, especially of women of color, for years. And they are aware of it. I've been to the Twitter headquarters and said, “What are you doing?” So they say they're working on it. I don't think the change is coming fast enough, unfortunately, and we've lost very talented, important voices, because they just didn't want to put up with the abuse anymore.

So it's hard to deal with the trolls. For me, on this particular issue, it's a bit easier, because I have the facts on my side. So I get people that say, "Oh, what about the BET Awards? The BET Awards are so black." And it’s like, “Well, okay, but Sam Smith just won Best New Artist the other year.” Another one I get often is, "Well, black people make up 13 percent of the population, and over the last 15 years, 13 percent of the Oscar nominees have been black. So, what's your problem?" And the answer to that one is, the Oscars have been around for nearly 90 years. So run those numbers and get back to me. You can't cherry-pick your statistics to fit your narrative. So I try to deal with it as graciously as I can. The 20th time in a day that I get something very abusive or problematic, I might pop off a little bit, but I try to keep it as graceful as I can.

Given how destructive trolling on platforms like Twitter has become, how do you deal with people who want to silence you? Especially since you have such a large platform now.

They can't. This is something I've taken on, and I have a passion for it. [I’ve tried] to be as consistent as I can over the past two years. I'm not going anywhere. Until we don't need to have conversations anymore about diversity and inclusion, because anyone in this country can go into a theater, not just during awards season, but in the middle of March, and see a film that reflects them and their experience, there's still going to be a need for #OscarsSoWhite. So they can try, but not only do I have the facts and the statistics on my side, but over the past two years, there has been enough groundswell around the world behind this issue, that it would be impossible to silence me.

Would you say there has been enough progress and there is no going back for this? Or can certain things be rolled back?

I think if we are not diligent and our voices are quieted, things can always be rolled back. Look what's going on with voting rights today, which is a much more important issue than winning an award, or who gets to star in a movie. Look what's going on with respect to the rights of immigrants today. So yes, things can always be rolled back, but we will continue to push forward as much as we can to continue the progress that has been made so far.