Tensions in Hollywood – and beyond – have been mounting since the Academy released its 2016 Oscar nominations, which included an all-white acting bracket for the second consecutive year.
As a number of stars have publicly condemned the lack of diversity in the nominees, it’s become increasingly clear that both members of the entertainment industry and fans are concerned about more than just who gets to take home a little gold man.
Viola Davis, a two-time Oscar nominee who in September became the first black woman to win an Emmy for lead actress in a drama series, pointed out that the issue is more about the state of the Hollywood business at large than an awards ceremony. “The problem is not with the Oscars, the problem is with the Hollywood movie-making system,” she told ET. “You can change the Academy, but if there are no black films being produced, what is there to vote for? The Oscars are not really the issue, it’s a symptom of a much greater disease,” she added.
So, does it matter who the public sees on the screen when they hunker down with a bucket of popcorn at the latest blockbuster? Throughout their careers, a number of actors and actresses of color have opened up about why it’s so important that people – especially children – see themselves and their communities reflected in television and film:
“Growing up, I never saw my home life reflected onscreen, and that made me feel a certain way about myself. It’s not only about my ethnicity; it made me feel a certain way about my beauty. Not seeing a woman like me as a lead made me feel like I’d never be skinny enough, I’d never be pretty enough. I want to give young girls, like my niece, the tools to see a billboard and think, ‘That [non-Latina] girl is beautiful, but that’s not the only form of beauty.’ ”
– In an interview with Glam Belleza Latina
“There were so few Asians onscreen when I grew up, and the ones who were onscreen weren’t given complex characters to play. In terms of pure acting, my role model has always been Philip Seymour Hoffman; I really always loved what he did. I love what Mark Ruffalo does. When I was younger, I liked Cate Blanchett a lot. These are all actors who are given stories and allowed to carry the whole story. You get to see a human at their highest point, their lowest point and everything in between. Asian-Americans haven’t been allowed that.
“In terms of movies, there’s never been an Asian-American actor who was allowed to carry their own movie for several movies. You can look at all these stats, and it’s very discouraging, but you either just do it or you don’t. And if you fail because Hollywood doesn’t want to let an Asian person be the lead in anything, well, you failed doing something that mattered to you.”
– In an interview with the New York Times
“I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned … And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful but that was no consolation: She’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful.
“And then Alek Wek came on the international scene. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful.”
– During her best breakthrough performance award acceptance speech at Essence‘s Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon
“Black kids watch The Lord of the Rings and they want to be the Lord of the Rings. I remember when they were doing Starsky & Hutch, and my manager was like, ‘We might be able to get you the part of Huggy Bear,’ which eventually went to Snoop Dogg. I was like: ‘Do you understand that when my brother and I watched Starsky & Hutch growing up, I would play Starsky and he would play Hutch? I don’t want to play f—ing Huggy Bear. This is not a historical drama. This is not Thomas Jefferson. It’s a movie based on a sh—- TV show, it can be anybody. Who cares. If they want me to play Starsky or Hutch, or even the bad guy, I’m down. But Huggy Bear?’
“You can go to whole movies and not see one black woman. They’ll throw a black guy a bone. OK, here’s a black guy. But is there a single black woman in Interstellar? Or Gone Girl? Birdman? The Purge? Neighbors? I’m not sure there are. I don’t remember them. I go to the movies almost every week, and I can go a month and not see a black woman having an actual speaking part in a movie. That’s the truth.”
– In an essay for The Hollywood Reporter
Taraji P. Henson
“Growing up, it was rare for me to see a woman that looked like me that inspired me. So it was very important for me to portray Cookie. I didn’t want to [screw] it up.
“She’s such a powerhouse, so I was very delicate with her. She can be really bigger than life, so I took very good care into making her someone that people could identify with – a real person, not just a caricature who could be sassy and roll her neck.”
– To PEOPLE
“The problem isn’t in the awards. It’s not a Golden Globes problem, it’s not an award ceremony problem. It’s a creation of content issue. We need more in art and entertainment that is reflective of the world that we live in. And there’s just not enough reflection in it for women, for people of color. There’s still a huge amount of stories that have yet to be told, and we need those voices to find those platforms so that they can share those experiences. I’m a huge lover of television and of film, I have been my whole life – and when there’s too much of the same thing and not enough to reflect the world that I live in, I take it personally.”
– During an interview with The Huffington Post
“Diversity is the American superpower, that’s why we’re great. So many different people from so many different places adding their ideas, their inspiration and their influences to this beautiful American gumbo. And for me, at it’s best, Hollywood represents and then creates the imagery for that beauty. But for my part I think that I have to protect and fight for the ideals that make our country and make our Hollywood community great. So when I look at the series of nominations from the Academy it’s not reflecting that beauty.
“This is so deeply not about me. This is about children that are going to sit down and watch [the Oscars] and they’re not going to see themselves represented … We’re a part of this community but at this current time we’re uncomfortable to stand there and say that this is okay.”
– On Good Morning America
Will Smith Reveals He Won’t Attend Oscars After Diversity Controversy
“As Latinos in this industry, we are still underrepresented in television. If you’re going to complain about it, you have to get in there and write, produce and create the stories. The entertainment industry keeps retelling the same stories. We need a different well to pull from. We have to support each other, so that studios and networks realize there is an audience for this.”
– In an interview with Variety Latino
“So the ‘Indians on TV’ episode [of Master of None], that kind of came about from this idea that there is this kind of thought that like, ‘Oh, there’s been so much progress and there’s all this diversity on TV’ but it’s still, like, there’s one Asian guy. Does this group of people ever see another Asian guy ever? Just the one guy? It’s just him? Is that it? So that’s what we started talking about: ‘There can be one, but there can’t be two …’ I have heard of stories like that where people are like, ‘Oh, well, they’ve already got their ethnic guy so I’m out of the running now …’ You see this one guy, one girl on a poster with a bunch of white people, and it’s like, ‘Hey, there’s our diversity. That person, they’re diverse. Look! It’s a diverse show.’ It’s that one minority.
“I think as things continue to evolve in our entertainment world, as more and more showrunners and creators are from more diverse backgrounds, I think you’re going to see more stories that are from those perspectives that are not just like, ‘What’s going to happen to this white guy?’ ”
– To Entertainment Weekly
“When I tell my daughter stories at night, she always says ‘Mommy, put me in the story,’ because we always want to be put in the story, whatever story you imagine. ‘Once upon a time, there lived a princess and she was beautiful,’ and my daughter says, ‘Make that princess me, let it be me.’ That’s what happens when you’re young and then something happens where you realize, ‘Well, they don’t see me that way.’ Well, I don’t see it that way. I want to be in the story. I think I deserve to be in that story and I believe my story deserves to be told.
“I feel that [How to Get Away With Murder] is a step in the right direction, that sometimes as fantastical as it can be, at least it’s bold and imaginative. At least it’s a stepping stone in taking people out of their comfort zone of how they see black women. I’m not sassy, there’s no rap music in the background. [Annalise] is hyper-sexual, she is a mess. She is nothing that we’ve seen before in this body and I think win or lose, that’s a step in the right direction.”
– In PEOPLE’s Aug. 24, 2015 issue