“#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.”
That was the first tweet April Reign said she sent last year after the list for the 2015 Oscar nominees highlighted a roster that was overwhelmingly white.
Reign — a writer, editor and former lawyer who lives in Washington, D.C. — said she initially created the hashtag to mock the lack of diversity at the award show. But almost immediately, users adopted it to call out the show in their own way and highlight the need for more inclusion of stars of color.
Within days, #OscarsSoWhite took on a life of its own. It flooded timelines, headlines and stories for weeks.
And when this year’s list of nominees failed to show any improvement among its acting categories, #OscarsSoWhite resurfaced for round two — and it was as resounding as ever.
“The response this year was so much more than last year,” Reign told The Huffington Post. “My hypothesis is that one time is a fluke and two times is the beginning of a pattern — that’s when people latched on.”
The calls for diversity were echoed by actors, activists, producers and moviegoers in the U.S. and abroad. Film creatives called for inclusion from Germany, London, New Zealand and South America, among other places.
“They are standing up and saying hey, this is a problem in our country too,” Reign said.
One time is a fluke and two times is the beginning of a pattern.”
The hashtag transformed into a movement fighting for fair representation and recognition of people of color in film — a mission many critics, who accused Reign of condemning those stars who were nominated, seemed to miss.
“It’s not about saying who is snubbed and who should have been nominated, it’s about opening the discussion more on how the decisions were made, who was cast and who tells the story behind the camera,” Reign said. “My goal was just to have the conversation and push the dialogue further.”
Reign, who originally joined Twitter in 2010 and has been active on the platform since, has always used it to voice her opinions, spark discussions and challenge others to debates around inclusion and diversity. These are all things she had experience doing after practicing law for nearly 20 years. But there came a time where Reign was no longer stimulated or satisfied with her career in campaign law.
“There was no imagination or creativity involved,” she said — so left the courtroom altogether and instead spoke to more people through more public platforms in media.
“I leaped; it felt right,” she said. “I worked until I found what really made me happy and being in this space and dealing with issues of entertainment and race makes me happy.”
#OscarsSoWhite isn’t the first time Reign was able to create change on Twitter. In early 2014, she sent a series of tweets speaking out against a boxing match that was scheduled to take place between rapper DMX and George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin.
“I thought it was a really bad idea,” Reign said.
She created the hashtag #StopTheFight and encouraged people to sign a petition to end the match. She was successful.
“Eventually the promoter, Damon Feldman, called me and had a conversation and he ultimately decided to cancel it,” she said.
Reign said she was gratified by the experience and she has since held a strong presence online talking about a range of topics — everything from entertainment, to politics, to racial and gender representation.
But publicly sharing her thoughts has also created an opening for trolls on Twitter who criticized her calls for equality and claimed she was racist, Reign said.
“You can’t be a racist because you’re giving factual information. You can’t be racist if you don’t have control of the system from which racism emanates,” she said. “People who would critique the hashtag typically have done no research whatsoever either about what I’m saying or the factual issues I’m addressing.”
And the most important platform that should consider Reign’s agenda — the academy itself — has done so. In January, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced changes and pledged to diversify its membership by 2020. This came as a result of Reign’s widespread efforts online and the powerful protests they led to — both among celebrities and everyday citizens.
“It’s a good first step, it’s the most significant change they’ve made in decades — if not ever,” Reign said in response to the changes. “I’m gratified by that and will keep pushing.”
Members of the academy aren’t the only ones responsible for the lack of representation and recognition of actors of color. The fault also lies with Hollywood executives, who are mostly white men who have failed to prioritize color-conscious casting in their films.
“The onus has to be with the studio executives as they’re sitting around the board room and deciding which films are greenlit and who is cast to tell the story both in front of and behind the camera,” Reign said.
The issue of representation touches Reign personally. Her name has largely gone ignored in the larger discussion and media coverage around #OscarsSoWhite. As the hashtag’s creator, Reign rightfully deserves recognition, and while she does not actively seek it, many outlets have been guilty of not giving her credit when it’s due.
“I’m not looking for the recognition because the changes that have been made could not have been made without millions of people of color speaking out about the issue using the hashtag,” she said. “But at the same time, we talk so much about women of color being erased — it’s ironic that I’m talking to media about my erasure.”
Reign’s commitment to speaking up and taking action against systems of power that widely exclude people of color is admirable. Her words are powerful and her message is moving. If we are to live in a more inclusive society, she says, it’s a mission we must all uphold, not just now but for generations to come.
“Representation matters to me because my children should be able to move freely in the world without thought of how someone else’s bias may affect them,” she said. “Because my kids should be able to see themselves up on a screen and should know that their stories are just as important as anyone else’s.”
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