NAACP Image Awards Nominees Sound Off on Oscars Diversity Controversy: 'Chris Rock Should Let Them Have It,' Says Laverne Cox

Nominees took on the award season controversy on Saturday

Photo: Tommaso Boddi/WireImage;Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

As stars nominated for the 47th annual NAACP Image Awards gathered at the Beverly Hilton in L.A. for a celebratory luncheon Saturday, the hottest topic was that other awards show: the outrage over the Oscars’ all-white acting nominations, debate about a boycott and just how host Chris Rock should tackle the controversy.

Rock is staying on as host and rewriting the show to highlight the issue, Oscars producer Reggie Hudlin has said. “I think Chris Rock should let them have it and he will,” Laverne Cox, an Image supporting actress nominee for Orange Is the New Black, told PEOPLE. “Chris Rock will give us life.”

Cox hopes the controversy will lead to “a more diverse Academy” – and most importantly, she says, people of color need more opportunities in Hollywood. “Viola Davis said something really beautiful in her Emmy speech, she said ‘We can’t get awards for roles that don’t exist,’ so we need to be cast in more roles,” Cox says. “We need to have people of color and diverse people behind the cameras.”

Cox says she’ll probably watch the Oscars. “It’s a ritual for me … it’s hard to imagine not watching the Oscars.” And Will Smith and wife Jada Pinkett Smith‘s decision to skip the show? “I would never tell the Smiths what they should or shouldn’t do,” Cox says. “But I will give a shout out to their beautiful son Jaden. I love their kids so much.”

Joe Morton, an Image nominee for TV’s Scandal, opposes any boycott. “I think boycotting the Oscars is doing it too late,” he says. “If you’re talking about diversity and you re upset at the fact that there aren’t enough nominations for black writers, actors and directors, then boycott the film before it gets to the Oscars. At the box office, that’s where people really feel it.”

The actor went on to explain that he decides what he is going to watch with that very criteria in mind.

“When I watch a film I say, ‘Well, there is nobody who is black in this film,'” the actor continued. Or this story is about something that there could never be anybody black in this story. You have to think ahead before you get to the ballot box. In this case, it’s about the box office.”

Alan Wenkus, an Oscar nominee for co-writing Straight Outta Compton, says all four of its nominated writers (who are all white) will be attending the Oscars, despite the movie’s snub for Best Picture, directing and acting.

“I’m going to honor Straight Outta Compton,” says Wenkus. “The Academy invited us, there are four writers and we are all going. We’re there for Ice Cube and Dre and the cast and directors. This is what N.W.A. does. They stir things up, they shine light on issues and now they’re doing it again.”

Wenkus notes that Compton director F. Gary Gray was invited to join the Academy this year, though he missed out on a directing nomination. “He’s an amazing, talented guy,” Wenkus says. “He was invited in before all this. I do not think people should boycott the Oscars. I think we need to come together and I think we need to do more projects for the Academy to look at.”

As for Will and Jada Pinkett Smith skipping the ceremony, “I hope they change their minds,” the writer says. “There’s still a little time and I would love to have a discussion and hear their thoughts. We are looking for solutions and more projects the Academy can consider. It can’t be solved overnight.”

The NAACP Image Awards air live at 9 p.m. (ET) on Feb. 5 on TV One.

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