April Reign, the Woman Behind #OscarsSoWhite, on Why Change Is a Long Time Coming

Reign launched the hashtag that’s changing the face of the Academy

On January 15, 2015, April Reign was getting ready to go to work in Washington, D.C. when the nominations for that year’s Academy Awards came on. Noticing that, once again, the people up for Oscars were overwhelmingly white, Reign opened her computer, logged in to Twitter, and wrote, “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.”

What began as a joke turned into a movement. By 2016, the cause was taken up by Jada Pinkett-Smith, Will Smith and Spike Lee. The result is that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences itself has released a plan, effective immediately, to introduce more diversity to their ranks within the next four years.

Here, Reign—who is also the managing editor of BroadwayBlack.com—talks about that initial tweet, the steam that it picked up, and what Hollywood needs to do next.

Was that first tweet just off the top of your head?
It was. I was sitting there, watching TV and getting ready for work, and I was like, “Are you kidding me?” And so I took to Twitter and vented my frustrations, and that was it. I’d love to have a sexier story to tell…but no. I tweeted that, got some retweets, people going off; I retweeted them, and then I finished getting ready and went off to work.

When did you realize that it was starting to trend?
It trended on the very first day. Initially it was a joke; it wasn’t until maybe a couple days later, when it became clear that the conversation had transitioned to a discussion of the impetus behind it, which was the lack of representation of marginalized commununities in the industry itself.

Maybe a week before the nominations came out in 2016, people started to hit me up and say, “This is looking like its going to be Oscars So White 2.0,” because the predictions were making it look like it was going to be even more dire than last year. And it trended immediately—it was even more widespread this year than it was last year.

You mean on Twitter, or just in general?
In general. I can quantify it in a number of different ways; the number of interviews I’ve done this year compared to last, the fact that there are celebrities and public figures and filmmakers and actors and actresses speaking out this year when they didn’t, or didn’t as such, last year.

What’s your sense of why it took off the way that it did this year?
I’m not exactly sure. I think that it’s very possible that people think that last year was sort of a one-off. But for it to happen again this year, the lack of marginalized communities nominated in the actor and actress categories but also the filmmakers behind the camera; again, the lack of diversity. People started to look and realize that this thing is a problem. It’s a pattern.

The hashtag provided a nice rallying point. It was simple and easily understood. But there have been people fighting for the kind of representation we’re discussing for years. Harry Belafonte. Sidney Poitier. Viola Davis. I think having something on social media just brings another entrypoint to that conversation.

I’m curious as to your take on what the Academy has done. I’ve been surprised at how divisive it is, with some people saying this is the right approach and some people saying this is the wrong approach.
I’m not sure why it would be the wrong approach to have more diversity anywhere. Their goal is to double the number of women and people of color by 2020, and I think that’s a good first step. Because people operate from their own frame of reference. So if there are more diverse Academy members, I’m hoping that means that the Academy as a whole will put more pressure on Hollywood to produce and distribute films that represent the diversity and the beauty and the complexity in all of us. It’s a good first step, and I think there is more that needs to be done. Who is cast to play a role, who is going to tell those stories from behind the camera.

When you think of Star Wars this year, that has a black lead and a female lead. You can no longer say that people from marginalized communities can’t open a film, nor can you say that people won’t support a film by paying their hard earned money to see it. And the point there is that if it’s a quality piece of work, everyone will go see it regardless of what they look like. Why not provide more opportunities for people to showcase their talent?

Have you faced any backlash?
Oh yeah.

What’s that like for you? 
It’s frustrating, most of all. It’s typically from people who are thinking from a very binary point of view, and who haven’t read anything that I’ve said in the past year. People sent these emails that are less than positive, people jump in my DM’s on Twitter because they are afraid to say whatever it is they want to say publicly, for other people to see. But it’s not about me, it’s about the work. So I just brush it off and keep going.

Follow April on Twitter at @ReignOfApril