Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Monday 29th May 2017 | Manchester, UK

The Academy Awards: Its history and its controversy

Whether it is Ellen’s world-breaking selfie, Leonardo DiCaprio’s agonising wait or that La La Land/Moonlight awkward moment, the Academy Awards always attracts huge global attention.

Every January the nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards are announced, leaving anticipation to build until winners are revealed at the coveted ceremony at the end of February. Since its beginning in 1929, the Awards ceremony has been the subject of both positive and controversial news, most infamously the ‘#Oscarssowhite’ 2016 boycott, protesting a lack of diversity.

The Academy Awards, more commonly known as the Oscars, recognises excellence in film by presenting the most prestigious awards available in the industry. There are 24 statues awarded, ranging from best cinematography to the sought-after best picture accolade. The Oscars has dramatically developed since its beginning in 1929, in the midst of prohibition and months before depression. The first ceremony was held on 16 May 1929 at a private dinner in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel: tickets cost just $5 and the ceremony lasted 15 minutes, quite a difference to the televised ceremony that reaches a global audience, recording its highest audience in 1998 at 55.299 million when Titanic scooped best picture. Broadcast on the radio from 1930, the Oscars did not reach the television screen until 1953, where the ‘golden envelope’ routine of announcing winners was firmly in place after the Los Angeles Times leaked the winners before the ceremony in 1940.

A report in 2012 showed that 94 percent of members of the academy were white and more than 77 percent were male. Lack of diversity such as this was the catalyst for the ‘#Oscarssowhite’ boycott of the 88th Academy Awards. 2016 was the second consecutive year in which no non-white actor had been nominated for an award. Leading African Americans in the field such as Will and Jada-Pinkett Smith boycotted the event in protest. Spike Lee also supported the boycott, posting on Instagram ‘How is it possible for the 2nd consecutive year all 20 contenders under the actor category are white? 40 white actors in 2 years and no flava at all.’

Race is a persistent controversial issue in the United States and the under representation of African Americans has proved to be a serious issue. There has been progress, such as Viola Davis becoming the first African American to have three academy awards and to win an Oscar, Emmy and Tony award following her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2017. Although race persists to be a controversial issue in both American film and society, the controversy and media coverage of the ‘#Oscarssowhite’ boycott emphasises the enormity and popularity of the Academy Awards.

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