Opportunity [Nation] and the Oscars•
There’s nothing quite like the experience of going to the Oscars. Imagine, you are at the snacks table (yes, they feed you cookies and coffee at the Oscars), you turn around and Rami Malek walks past you, then you head to the stairs and you see Serena Williams at a distance. Everyone is wearing their best attire, there’s a feeling of excitement in the air, and people are celebrating the film industry. The Oscars is nothing short of glamorous.
I had the honor of attending the annual Academy Awards (Oscars) show this year thanks to Opportunity Nation, where I joined its director, Michelle Massie (whose leadership I truly admire). Three years ago, I was selected to serve as one of Opportunity Nation’s Opportunity Leaders, and it’s been a powerful journey. I’ve had the chance to interact with brilliant young leaders from across the US, all focused on making an impact in their respective communities. The Opportunity Leaders program explores the challenges and solutions in expanding opportunity for young people and gives us a platform to advocate on behalf of our peers.
In the United States, only 6% of children born in low-income families will make it to the top of the income ladder. According to the latest Opportunity Index, there are 4.9 million “disconnected” or Opportunity Youth — young adults, age 16-24, who are not in school or working. Our participation at the Oscars was to learn about and show how Hollywood portrays the issues Opportunity Nation addresses or seeks to advance (equity, opportunity, education, poverty).
Diversity at the Oscars was a trending topic before our arrival, and it makes sense. According to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, across 100 movies of 2018, a total of 28 featured an underrepresented lead or co-lead driving the storyline. While this is a gain of 7 percentage points from 2017 (21%) and a 15 percentage point gain from 2007 (13%), the overall percentage is still below the US Census (39.3%) by 11.3 percentage points. We know that diversity is an issue within the film industry, but Hollywood is making strides thanks to inclusion riders, a requirement in studio contracts to audition or interview women and racial minorities for acting or production positions. The rider is already having a positive impact, with film and television projects hiring more women and minorities.
I did my policy research before I arrived in Los Angeles and knew what conversations I wanted to explore with industry professionals at the Oscars. However, I knew it was the Academy Awards, and I needed to look red carpet ready! The first question anyone will ask you when they find out you are going to the Oscars is “what are you wearing?!” To which I replied, “I’ll figure it out.” Followed by an internal “oh, snap! I better hurry and find something to wear now.” And so the search began.
Thanks to a friend who owns a formal wear shop, which is minority-owned, I was able to find a beautiful tuxedo.
Fast Forward to Oscars weekend and I was off to LAX. It was my first time in LA in 14 years, I did not know what to expect. As a tech entrepreneur, I travel often to San Francisco, but LA is its own world! The city offers a dynamic lifestyle, and has growing diverse communities, from the trending East LA to Beverly Hills, Angelenos take pride in their city. On the first night, I got to explore the east side of LA, which offers an insight into the Latino culture of California, and as a proud Texan, I needed to try their tacos, because of course, Texas has better tacos. To my surprise, LA offers great Mexican food; yes, I said it. Moreover, East Los Angeles, is a warm and welcoming community. I heard many stories from locals, from gentrification to job opportunities, but a recurring theme was the ambition of younger Latinos and their commitment to building a better future by attending college and finding high-paying jobs. That was truly inspirational.
I woke up early on Oscars morning, because it’s a 2-hour time change, and honestly, I was very excited. I went for a bike ride and kept visualizing what it would be like to walk the red carpet. While having breakfast and watching the Red Carpet coverage on TV, I was thinking to myself, wow – I will be there in a couple of hours! Ninety minutes later, some jazz music, and I was red carpet ready.
The Oscars red carpet is quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Everywhere you turn, there is someone famous. From Spike Lee to Regina King to Jeff Bezos, the camera flashes, screaming, the smell perfumes, and of course, Ryan Seacrest interviewing the cast of Crazy Rich Asians. The red carpet at the Oscars is very long because all the guests are stopping to try to get a glimpse of any celebrity, all while taking photos – you need that perfect shot! It took me about an hour to walk the whole thing. And I was loving every second of it. You have Beyoncé’s music blasting in the background while walking through the entrance of the Dolby Theatre, and that’s when it hits you, IT’S SHOW TIME.
Inside, the show begins. And it’s a long one. However, you have many breaks, where you go to the restroom or the snacks table, and that’s when I had the opportunity to interact with folks like Guillermo Del Toro, Trevor Noah, Jeff Bezos, Congressman John Lewis, and the cast of Roma – Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira.
It was a surreal experience. I also spent some time talking to renowned Mexican actor, Diego Luna, on building a more diverse Hollywood industry, the portrayal of minorities in film, and the importance for minority actors/actresses to receive leading roles. He agreed, and also mentioned his recent work at Harvard, where he spoke about diversity in the film industry. It was great talking to him about our goals with Opportunity Nation, it really inspired him, and I hope actors, directors, and producers can continue building equity within the industry.
I took a bite of my chocolate chip cookie as I awaited the Best Picture announcement (which also means that the 4-hour show is almost over). And then, Green Book, a movie about two men who develop an unexpected bond while confronting racism and danger in an era of segregation, won Best Picture!
The show wraps, and now it’s time for the party to begin. Up the stairs right inside the same building is the official after-party of the Academy Awards – The Governor’s Ball. This is where all the winners come to celebrate. At this point, I was ready to head back to the hotel. This had been one of the most glamorous nights of my life, and I was in a state of total euphoria. I got our Opportunity Nation message across, I informed industry leaders about our goals, and at the same time, learned about the many challenges the film industry faces. One thing is certain, Hollywood needs to highlight the everyday lives of people of different cultures, classes, races or sexualities. This is the way to inspire future generations.