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2016 Oscar nominations highlight larger problem in Hollywood film industry

By Britton Perelman, Managing Editor

A month ago, the nominations for the 88th annual Academy Awards were announced. Of the 20 spots available in the four acting categories, none were filled with non-Caucasian actors.

Things exploded after that.

For a second year in a row, #OscarsSoWhite trended on Twitter. Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith announced they wouldn't be attending the Oscars ceremony because of the nature of the nominations. Chris Rock, the host of the 2016 show, tweeted that the Oscars were, essentially, the "White BET Awards." "Saturday Night Live" parodied the controversy in an original sketch. And everyone from Whoopi Goldberg to Michael Caine to President Obama has commented on the controversy since.

Nine days after the nominations were announced, Academy CEO Dawn Hudson and president Cheryl Boone-Isaacs revealed a plan to promote diversity within the organization. Three more board of governors seats and new rules regarding members voting statuses were added. Hudson and Boone-Isaacs are hoping that, by 2020, women and minorities will make up 48 percent of the Academy.

But the problem, for the most part, isn't the Academy. It's the entertainment industry.

Think about what movies stood out to you from the past year. For me, its films like "Spotlight," "Brooklyn," "Room," and "The Martian." Or "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," "The Danish Girl" and "The Big Short."

Out of the eight movies I just mentioned, two have black actors in major roles - John Boyega as Finn in "Star Wars" and RJ Cyler as Earl in "Dying Girl."

There were plenty of movies featuring black actors in 2015 - Will Smith in "Concussion," the entire cast of "Straight Outta Compton," Idris Elba in "Beasts of No Nation," Michael B. Jordan in "Creed," and Samuel L. Jackson in "The Hateful Eight." But those movies weren't the best of the year.

Could they have been nominated? Sure. Should they have been nominated for the purpose of adding diversity to the list of nominees? No.

The Academy Awards are the Super Bowl of film. They honor the best of the best. And if the best performances happen to be by Caucasian actors and actresses, so be it.

It's not about racism. The nominations aren't racist - they're the product of an industry that isn't providing opportunities for actors of diverse backgrounds.

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There need to be roles for black actors that aren't slaves or thugs. There need to be roles for Asian actors that aren't I.T. guys or immigrants. There need to be roles for women that aren't housewives or supporting characters. There need to be roles for Indian actors, Middle-Eastern actors, Latino actors, European actors, Caucasian actors, men and women that aren't stereotypes.

I completely understand if the script is historical in nature, or based on a true story, and, in casting, it is necessary to remain faithful to the truth.

Denzel Washington shouldn't have played screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in "Trumbo." Bryan Cranston was the right choice for that role - not only does he look like the real life Trumbo, but he also gives an incredible performance.

In "Brooklyn," Saoirse Ronan gives the best performance of her career thus far. She plays an Irish immigrant in the 1950s, when, historically, Ireland's population was primarily white. It was a role tailor-made for her.

We shouldn't be downplaying the amazing, award-worthy performances by the 20 nominees just because there was a lack of diversity to choose from this year. We should be commending the nominees, celebrating the films and the performances.

But we also have to understand and accept that change isn't going to happen overnight.

Take the television industry. Thirty years ago, a black, female actress headlining a television show was unheard of. Then, in 2012, Shonda Rhimes cast Kerry Washington in "Scandal." And two weeks ago, Uzo Adubo, Viola Davis, Queen Latifah, and Idris Elba all won Screen Actors Guild awards for their performances in various TV shows.

Slowly but surely, the television landscape changed.

If anything is going to change in film, we have to be color-blind when we write scripts and cast actors. We have to take a page from Broadway's book and cast black actors as Jean Valjean in "Les Mis" and as Hermione in "Harry Potter."

We have to create characters that are complex, flawed, interesting and can be played by any actor. We need to create Walter White, Olivia Pope, Frank Underwood, and Cookie Lyon characters for the big screen. We need to let the best actors bring those characters to life, regardless of their background.

The Academy Awards are one of my favorite nights of the entire year. I'll be tuning in on Feb. 28 to celebrate another great year of film. You should, too.

Boycotting the awards does nothing. A lack of diversity in movies isn't the Academy's fault. It's the film industry's.