LOS ANGELES — The National Action Network plans to establish a Hollywood diversity committee soon to work with the movie industry to develop more movie projects that feature people of color, the network’s local political director said this week.
Najee Ali said the group would initiate meetings with studio heads to ensure more projects are approved that show a broader range of life experiences after his group called for a boycott of the Feb. 28 Academy Awards for its failure to nominate any black actors or actresses for top awards for the second year in a row.
Ali and other activists were taking credit for a drop in the Academy Awards show’s television ratings.
The viewership for the Feb. 28 Oscars telecast on ABC plunged to an eight-year low, but in spite of the controversy surrounding the exclusion of black actors and projects, the number of African Americans viewing the show declined by a lower amount than that of viewers overall.
The Nielsen Company reported that about 3.22 million African-Americans were watching during any average minute of the broadcast, a dip of two percent from last year. That is compared to the 34.4 million overall viewers, which dropped six percent from 2015.
Chris Rock’s performance as host may have mitigated some of the affect of the boycotts called for by civil rights groups.
Ali said he thought the boycott and demonstration spearheaded by his organization “went beyond expectations,” and contributed to the low viewership overall.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, civil rights icon and the founder of NAN, flew in from New York to attend the protest, which took place at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Highland Avenue, the drop-off point for limousines carrying celebrity guests. He also addressed a packed house during a morning service at the First AME Church.
“Is it really saying we’ve made progress to give awards to everybody else?” Sharpton said. “Is it really progress to say we can crack jokes, but we can’t crack the Top 20 nominations?”
As protesters shouted “No justice, no peace” and “This is what democracy looks like” in the demonstration that began outside Hollywood High School, Sharpton said, “The message is that we’re putting them on notice that we cannot continue to be stalled in this industry dealing with a racially exclusive policy.”
Though the decline of African-American viewers may have been less pronounced than the general trend this year, blacks have never accounted for much of the Oscars’ audience. Over the past 10 years, blacks have represented about nine percent. Those numbers peaked at 12.5 percent in 2005, the last time Rock was the host, according to Nielsen figures.
“There are other issues more pressing to black people,” said Melina Abdullah, a professor and chair of the Department of Pan-African Studies at Cal State Los Angeles, on why the ceremony draws little interest from the black community.
“We don’t want to get caught up in a fantasyland, and this year it was a white fantasyland that has no bearing on our lives as black people,” she added.
That was a theme that Rock touched on in his opening monologue, in which he began by calling the Oscars “The white People’s Choice Awards.”
Though the backlash facing the Academy focused on the exclusion of black actors and projects in the past two years, Rock pointed out that always has been the case.
“Black people did not protest,” he said of Hollywood in the 1950s and ’60s. “Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time. They were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer. When your grandmother is swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about Best Documentary Foreign Short.”
During his opening monologue, Rock mentioned that he had been urged to step down as host in protest.
“I thought about quitting. I thought about it real hard,” he said. “But they’re not going to cancel the Oscars because I quit. And the last thing I need is to lose another job to Kevin Hart.”
Abdullah said the Academy’s selection of Rock as the host was “a deliberate choice.”
“They wanted to be able to make light of the positions we’ve taken,” she said.
Abdullah herself occasionally watches the Oscars during years where black actors and films are nominated. But she said that African-Americans have “very little power in Hollywood,” a fact that underscores the importance of other entertainment options such as the Pan-African Film Festival.
Along with pushing for more mainstream inclusion, Abdullah said she advocates African Americans in the entertainment industry harnessing their own power outside of Hollywood.