The Real Winner of the Oscars, Spotlight on Employment Discrimination?

By: Gabriel Arevalo

The 2016 Oscars was a night full of winners and upsets, Mad Max Fury Road won several Oscars shocking people with the idea that an action movie can be held as high art.[1] Arguably the biggest winner last night was Leonardo DiCaprio who finally won his Oscar after years of struggle overcoming the discrimination against him.[2]  The 2016 Oscars was also filled with controversy this year as the hash-tag, “Oscars so white,” began to hit social media by storm.[3]  The public was furious that for a second year in a row  there was an under representation of actors of color nominated for acting awards.[4] Chris Rock, the Zebra from Madagascar, in his opening monologue admitted that Hollywood is racist, especially when it comes to casting.[5] If Mr. Rock’s racially charged and uncomfortably funny monologue at the beginning of the night is correct, then perhaps Hollywood may be guilty of more than just racism and bad casting, they could be guilty of violating Title VII of the 1963 civil rights act.

Title VII of the 1963 civil rights act makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate. Title VII states,

  1. a) Employer practices, It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer (1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or (2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.[6]

If Hollywood does indeed discriminate based on race, as many suggest, they could be violating Title VII by discriminating employees (actors) based on race – but where is the evidence of such a claim?

Some would say look at some of the movies casted in the past where it was obvious that white actors where given roles over other races or ethnicities in order to find evidence of discrimination. Just this year Gods of Egypt premiered starring Gerard Butler, the movie concerns ancient Egyptian gods and figures yet curiously The Egyptian movie set in Africa was lacking in leading characters of Egyptian or African descent.[7]  Another example of possible discrimination in casting is in the popular movie 21, which was based on a true story involving an Asian MIT student who counted cards in black jack, the main actor cast was white.[8] This obviously doesn’t automatically mean discrimination but it does raise some questions, and when bringing a discrimination case this may be enough to get them in the court house door.[9] If hypothetically a case were brought against a casting agency or the movie studio, the burden of proof to show that there was no discrimination would fall on the defendants.[10]  Is there a lack of ethnically diverse actors that can perform the job? This seems highly unlikely.

Could Hollywood be looking at a rash of Title VII cases? Could the recent rise of racial attitudes and tensions lead some to look to the law in order to force more diversity in Holly

[1] Bryan Bishop, Mad Max: Fury Road wins most awards of the night with six Oscars, The Verge (Feb. 29, 2016 12:39 am) http://www.theverge.com/2016/2/29/11131218/mad-max-fury-road-most-awards-academy-awards-2016

[2] Brian Truitt, Take a Lap Leo, DicCapiro Finally Gets his Oscar, (Feb. 29, 2016 1:39 am) http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2016/02/28/leonardo-dicaprio-finally-wins-his-oscar-academy-awards/80952808/.

[3] Lisa Respers France, #OscarsSoWhite? It starts with the academy, CNN (Jan. 20 2016) http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/19/entertainment/oscars-so-white-academy-feat/

[4] Id.

[5] Brandon Griggs, Chris Rock: ‘You’re damn right Hollywood is racist’, CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/28/entertainment/chris-rock-oscars-so-white-feat/index.html?eref=rss_showbiz

[6] EEOC, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/titlevii.cfm (last visited Mar. 3, 2016).

[7] Hoai-Tran Bui, ‘Gods of Egypt’ director apologizes for ‘whitewashed’ cast, USA Today, (Nov. 30, 2015) http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2015/11/30/gods-egypt-director-apologizes-whitewashed-cast/76565502/

[8] Amanda Scherker, Whitewashing Was One Of Hollywood’s Worst Habits. So Why Is It Still Happening?, Huffington Post (Jul. 10, 2014), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/10/hollywood-whitewashing_n_5515919.html.

[9]John F. Beasley Jr., Proof of Pretext: A Review of Case Authority and Strategy From a Plaintiff’s Perspective, 3 http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/labor_law/meetings/2011/ac2011/033.authcheckdam.pdf.

[10] Id., at 3.

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