Stephen King’s Comments About the Oscars Explain the Oscars

The author, who is an Academy Award voter, inadvertently captured why Hollywood’s biggest ceremony faces a diversity problem year after year.

AP Photo / Mark Lennihan

It started, as it so often does, with a series of tweets from someone famous enough to need a social-media manager. Early Tuesday morning, the author Stephen King logged on to Twitter to share his thoughts about the fact that the Oscar nominees, announced the day before, included no female directors and a single actor of color. “As a writer, I am allowed to nominate in just 3 categories: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Screenplay. For me, the diversity issue—as it applies to individual actors and directors, anyway—did not come up. That said,” King added, “I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.”

And thus the usual forces were set in motion: responses from disappointed peers and moviegoers alike, and an apparent backtracking of the ill-conceived comments within the same day. “You can’t win awards if you’re shut out of the game,” King wrote, acknowledging the structural challenges that many creators face. For those who have followed the industry’s responses to widespread calls for greater diversity, especially since the #OscarsSoWhite campaign began five years ago, cycles like this are a familiar part of the awards season. After a Golden Globes that featured many presenters of color but a primarily white set of winners, this year’s Oscar and BAFTA Awards nominations didn’t deviate much from a well-worn script either. (Cynthia Erivo, the only Oscar-nominated actor of color this year, stars in HBO’s adaptation of King’s The Outsider and offered an implicit critique of the author’s tweets when asked about them on Wednesday.)

The Academy’s perceived snubs—of actors such as Us’s Lupita Nyong’o and Hustlers’ Jennifer Lopez, along with directors such as Little Women’s Greta Gerwig and The Farewell’s Lulu Wang—are as unfortunate as they are predictable. And comments like King’s reveal a major reason why: Diversity is too often discussed as something separate from, or even in conflict with, artistic virtue. It is treated as an abstract concept meant to materialize without industry gatekeepers and Oscar voters, such as King, challenging their own possibly narrow views and instituting different practices. Put more plainly, the lack of representation is regularly talked about as a problem, but one for someone else to solve and for other institutions to address.

Consider, for example, the equivocal responses that prominent white filmmakers have given throughout the years when asked about the glaring demographics of their industry—and of their own works. In 2016, at the height of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign’s first awards season, the industry veterans Joel and Ethan Coen answered a question about diversity with “matching groans,” with Joel telling The Daily Beast that the complaints overestimated the awards’ impact. “I don’t think they even matter much from an economic point of view,” he said, before adding, “Diversity’s important. The Oscars are not that important.” This is, of course, demonstrably false: Oscar nods and wins often influence what kinds of films get financed in the future and can even lead to “stratospheric increases in salary” for actors in particular. At the time of the interview, the Coen brothers had won four Oscars and been nominated for 10.

Perhaps the most pernicious factor contributing to such deflections is the oft-repeated belief that the industry is an impartial adjudicator, or that things just pan out the way they do by chance. King is hardly alone in his views. In 2016, the second year in a row that saw the Academy nominate only white actors, the director Quentin Tarantino answered a question about the Hateful Eight actor Samuel L. Jackson not receiving a nomination with a mealy-mouthed assessment. “My only guess, frankly, is that [voters] take him for granted. That would be my only guess," Tarantino said, later adding that his own films actually represented racial progress within the Western genre. Tarantino’s latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which isn’t a Western, has been nominated for 10 Oscars this year and was criticized for casting an all-white ensemble.

Tim Burton, who directed Jackson in another racially homogenous film, compared concerns about all-white casts with the existence of genres created precisely because of Hollywood exclusion: “I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct. Like, OK, let’s have an Asian child and a black,” he said in a 2016 interview with Bustle. “I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies."

So often, though, even Hollywood gatekeepers who have expressed a theoretical wish for a more inclusive entertainment landscape seem resigned to maintaining the status quo within their own field of influence. Martin Scorsese, who in 1993 wrote a letter to The New York Times arguing that “diversity guarantees our cultural survival,” rejected a question last year about the lack of prominent roles for women in his films. “That’s not even a valid point,” he said while promoting his latest, The Irishman, which received 10 Oscar nods. “It’s a question I’ve had for so many years. It is a waste of everybody’s time,” later adding that his films did include these sorts of roles “if a story calls for a female lead.” It’s a commonly raised point—that storytellers should put the needs of the story first—but one that often frames diversity as a chore, or in clinical terms rather than considering its narrative possibilities through an imaginative lens. “You don’t sit down and ... say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog’—right?” Joel Coen said in 2016.

There are, of course, ways to shift the Hollywood landscape without radically changing one’s own art, and many Hollywood heavyweights do use their cachet to open doors for others. But the seeming reluctance of men such as King, Tarantino, and Burton to conceive of themselves as figures of influence obscures their responsibility to the broader entertainment community. Despite often being arbiters of both financial resources and soft power, these artists continue to place industry-wide concerns at arm’s length. As my colleague David Sims wrote, “Academy members themselves have the power to expand what kinds of movies are considered Oscar contenders. One step would be to reject the preemptive hand-waving doled out to so many acclaimed films, many of them artsier or smaller-scale, that supposedly will never play with Oscar voters for little reason other than tradition.” Until Oscar voters acknowledge—and reconfigure—their circumscribed visions of artistry, the rest of Hollywood (and the moviegoing public) will be subject to the same wearying cycles.