Creator of #OscarsSoWhite Speaks in Grand Rapids

April Reign created #OscarsSoWhite in response to the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry
April Reign created #OscarsSoWhite in response to the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry

Three years ago, while sitting in her living room, April Reign watched as the nominees for the 87th Oscars were named. All 20 of the acting category nominees were white men or women and the behind the scenes nominees weren’t any better.

Reign, already an active presence on social media, typed out a tweet in response, “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.” She then continued getting ready for work and around lunchtime checked back in on Twitter. Her tweet had gone viral.

“The hashtag [#OscarsSoWhite], based on that one tweet, was trending internationally,” Reign said.

That hashtag became a tipping point in the entertainment industry, spurring an intense dialogue over the next several days about the lack of diversity and inclusion, initially with respect to the Oscars, and later in the entertainment industry as a whole.

Today, the hashtag is still in use on Twitter and it will very likely see a resurgence in a few weeks when the 2018 Oscar nominees are announced.

Reign is coming to Grand Rapids on Monday as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Day celebration being hosted by Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Community College, Davenport University and Opera Grand Rapids.

Reign plans to speak about justice in the digital age.

“Obviously, because its MLK Day, I will be touching on the ways we communicated during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and even the ‘70s with respect to social justice and issues of that time and then bringing it forward and discussing the changes we’ve seen today with the Black Lives Matter movement and others, and then tying that to how we can galvanize and move people forward in 2018 and beyond,” Reign said.

Reign said social media has become an important platform for activists and has opened up a new avenue of protest that can be very useful when utilized well. It has also leveled the playing field for individuals who might not be as likely to head to a protest march or can’t leave work or who face other barriers.

“I think social media can be an incredibly effective tool for justice and movements of inclusion. It just has to be wielded effectively, like any other tool,” she said.

Despite several changes by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, including an increase in membership and membership requirements to increase diversity by 2020 and continued conversations within the industry, this year’s Academy Awards are not likely to demonstrate much progress.

“Just last night with the Golden Globes there were only two people of color who won in the acting categories and I think only three overall, maybe four in all of the categories,” Reign said.

She pointed out that films that did well at the box office and with audiences like “Get Out” and “Girls Trip” were overlooked completely.

She also noted, based on the movies that debuted in 2017 she doesn’t expect a much better outcome this year.

“It is definitely going to be #OscarsSoWhite 3.0 this year and I don’t expect to see a lot of nominations of people from traditionally underrepresented communities,” she said.

Reign said until all marginalized communities are better reflected in film and television, she expects #OscarsSoWhite to remain relevant.

“#OscarsSoWhite is not binary. While folks think I am only talking about the lack of representation of black people, I’m talking about all traditionally underrepresented communities, including race, sexual orientation, gender, age and disability,” she said.

“Until we see movies that reflect the experiences of the moviegoers, the actual consumers sitting in the seats, there is a lot more that will need to be done with respect to inclusion and #OscarsSoWhite will remain relevant.”

Reign is committed to that work. She created a list of suggestions, published in The Guardian in 2016, aimed at increasing diversity and inclusion in entertainment through systemic change in front of and behind the camera.

She said the tired argument that “diversity doesn’t sell” has long been proven false and it’s clear that audiences are less concerned by the color of someone’s skin than with the quality of the work.

“We know diversity sells and representation matters,” she said. “The more diverse your movie or TV show, the more people you will get to come see it.”

She added, “The largest demographic who watch “Empire” on Fox are white people, not black people. If there is a good story, told well, with good acting and performances, people will watch it regardless of what the faces look like.”

She pointed to the success of “Hamilton” as another example. “All of the people portrayed in Hamilton were white men and women, yet Hamilton is probably the most diverse and inclusive cast we’ve seen in the last 10 years. It’s sold out until like 2047. Again, it’s a good story, told well, with good actors.”

Reign said she has been buoyed by the progress she has seen and that the conversation three years on hasn’t faded from the spotlight.

*Photo courtesy of Opera Grand Rapids

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