BET Founder Bob Johnson Calls Out Oscars, Black Community Over Diversity Drama

“We must convince African Americans that we can tell our own stories,” Johnson tells TheWrap

Oscars Poster and Bob Johnson
ABC/Melissa Golden

Black Entertainment Television founder Robert L. “Bob” Johnson is adding his voice to the debate surrounding the lack of diversity among this year’s Oscar nominees.

Johnson, who launched BET in 1980, and rolled out his digital, subscription-based service, Urban Movie Channel (UMC) in 2014, told TheWrap on Tuesday that his decades of experience in the entertainment industry make him a “voice of reason” on creating and delivering content.

“We need to get more creative stories in front of the judging group at the Academy, so that they will have more choices on which to make their individual decisions,” Johnson said.

Since the Oscar nominations were announced last week, Academy voters have come under fire for failing to nominate a single actor of color, while the cast of “Straight Outta Compton” is nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Ensemble Award, and Will Smith and Idris Elba both received Golden Globe nominations.

Johnson believes there are several factors at play in the Oscars diversity drama.

“I won’t use the word racism. I’m not going to run away from that as an issue that has plagued this country since its founding, but I think what I will use, is preconceived biases that are part economic and part cultural, and as a result of that, we are sort of where we are today,” he said.

In Johnson’s opinion, the Academy is only partly to blame for the Oscars white-out.

“They don’t make movies. They only judge what the studios deliver,” he said.

Johnson then called on the studios to greenlight more diverse projects. And he implored African Americans to tell their own stories, and not depend on the Hollywood establishment.

“If you ask a culture to tell your stories, they simply can’t do it or won’t do it because that goes against their innate belief that their culture deserves to be trumpeted, promoted, enjoyed,” he said. “So, if you’re the African-American society and you wait for white America to say ‘I’m gonna tell your stories,’ first of all, they don’t know them or appreciate them, and second of all, that is not in their DNA.”

Johnson also addressed a complaint that many African Americans have raised over the years, that black actors only get recognized by the Academy when they play subservient roles.

“They [Caucasians] can tell societal abuses about you, because someone understands it, that’s why you can get a ’12 Years a Slave.’ That’s why you can get ‘The Help.’ But the stories about you doing things to show your power? It’s just not something that other cultures do.”

While Johnson admitted it’s difficult to get movies made, he suggested African-American filmmakers look to the Internet and streaming services, like UMC, to distribute their projects. He also laid out a list of recommendations on how the Academy can increase the pool of diversity among Oscar nominees.

Below are Johnson’s recommendations:

  • Increase the number of voting members of the Academy by adding qualified minority individuals whose sensitivity and knowledge of the creative process of writers, directors, and actors is equal to that of existing Academy voters. Perhaps the ratio of new diverse members could be based on either the population of diverse theatergoers or the dollars spent by diverse theatergoers. The goal here is not to dilute an individual’s unique perspective as an Academy voter, whether they are diverse or not, but simply to increase diversity of voices and therefore choices.
  • Encourage the studios and the creative community to cast actors and actresses in roles without regard to color/race whether or not the society is willing or ready to accept the diverse relationship that is depicted in the film. For example, would films like “Pretty Woman” or “Sleepless in Seattle” have been less creative if the characters were interracial?; and finally…
  • Encourage the studios to hire more people of color in their creative and development departments with authority to greenlight films similar to what is occurring in television as noted by the number of Emmy nominations for minorities.