It’s not unprecedented, but after two years running in which the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has not nominated a single black actor for an Oscar, several artistes of colour are threatening to boycott the award ceremony this year. Others are asking their peers to get over colour issues, while Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs herself insists that greater representation is required. Instead of war, a discussion has broken out.
Roll back to 1975, when a five-year streak of all-white nominations began. No alarm bells rang. Hollywood’s limited palette was again highlighted in 2001, in Halle Berry’s acceptance speech for Monster’s Ball, where she dedicated her award to “every nameless, faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.” It was admired for its boldness at the time but today, it would be deemed a routine element of the discourse. Because in the meantime, the quality of the discussion has changed. The Obama presidency was expected to deliver on foreign policy and welfare, but it may be remembered better for making the issue of race relations so explicit, so normal, that even the president of an embattled cultural academy can speak freely and honestly about it, in the public domain.
Indian politics should try to learn from this culture of openness, before our discourse collapses into a monologue. The nation is repeatedly confronting questions of difference, of categories. This week, a minister has tried to deny that the suicide of a student in Hyderabad had anything to do with the different treatment faced by Dalits. The national general secretary of the BJP is on a personal crusade against “anti-national forces” on campus. Earlier, the government had tried to smear intellectuals who were uneasy with it for giving divisive elements a free run. And cultural figures, including actors, who felt that they did not belong in today’s India were peremptorily told to pack off to Pakistan. Halfway around the world Spike Lee, who was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2015, has politely declined to attend this year’s award ceremony. No one has told him to pack off to Gambia or Guinea, or wherever they imagine his genetic origins may lie.
Jada Pinkett Smith, who is spearheading the movement, has not been accused of being anti-national. The US used to be derided as absurdly nationalistic but today, India could beat it hands down.