#OscarsSoWhite: On Diversifying Hollywood
[Originally posted January 2016, on Racialicious.com]
For the second year in a row there were no actors of colour nominated for lead or supporting acting awards, and no Black directors recognised for their efforts. The lack of nominations for Creed and Straight Out Of Compton stood out to many, leading to the resurgence of @ReignofApril’s #OscarsSoWhite tag, calls for a boycott of the show, and demands that there be immediate changes in the voting and nomination process. To the Academy’s credit they did move rather swiftly. Their statement began with: “The Board’s goal is to commit to doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.” and outlined some important changes:
Beginning later this year, each new member’s voting status will last 10 years, and will be renewed if that new member has been active in motion pictures during that decade. In addition, members will receive lifetime voting rights after three ten-year terms; or if they have won or been nominated for an Academy Award.
At the same time, the Academy will supplement the traditional process in which current members sponsor new members by launching an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity.
Under President Cheryl Boone Isaac’s leadership the Academy has taken steps to mitigate their diversity issues, but this top-down solution isn’t the only thing necessary to fix Hollywood’s race problem. Viola Davis hit on it when she won her Emmy — in an industry that’s often considered my more diverse — for How To Get Away With Murder. “You can’t win an Emmy for a role that isnt there,” she said during her acceptance speech. The same principal applies to the big screen — people of colour cannot be nominated for the roles that do not exist.
Changing the rules the Academy operates under is a giant step, but does the number of diverse people there to vote matter if the number of diverse people in mainstream Hollywood films doesn’t increase at the same speed?
White actors have the largest breadth of roles in Hollywood. It’s as easy for Steve Carrell to make Foxcatcher as it is for him to make The 40 Year Old Virgin, Little Miss Sunshine, or The Big Short, and he’ll receive acclaim or some kind of major nomination for all of them. Note the variety of topics and genres Carrell is able to work in; not to mention the different directors and writers. Each of these films was marketed to a general audience — not just a white one. This makes sense since in 2014 white people made up 63% of the population and only made up 56% of the movie going audience, while Latin@s were 25% of the movie going audience despite making up 17% of the American population.
With numbers like that you’d think that actors like Gina Rodriguez would be more in demand. You might assume that there would be more than one Oscar Isaac taking over Hollywood along with fellow white hearthrobs Zac Efron, Channing Tatum, and — as inexplicable as it is — Bennedict Cumberbatch.
The problem isn’t just the Academy voting, it’s the variety and number of roles that people of colour are offered. If you’re a good actress, say a Meryll Streep or Cate Blanchett, steadily working on a number of movies in different genres marketed towards wide audiences each year then your chances of making something that is clearly Oscar Bait or even stumbling into a nomination unexpectedly is much higher. Easy A comes to mind when thinking of “stumbling into nominations.” It brought Emma Stone an unexpected Golden Globe nomination (she was also later nominated for an Oscar for Birdman). ‘Classic Literature retold via teen movie’ is a fairly common movie trope more often than not told via a majority white gaze, and often critically adored. Easy A represents a widely popular and financially successful genre of film that Black, Latino, Asian, and Native actors have never gotten to lead. We have no Jane Austen teen comedies starring Amandla Stenberg, no modern day high school Shakespeare romps starring Avan Jogia.
Exposure is just as important in the nomination and voting process as the quality of the movies themselves. I speak from experience, as someone whose job it was to fill out Emmy and Oscar ballots for someone during the 2011 awards season. I hadn’t seen all the movies and TV up for nomination, and in some categories I voted based on the past work of those nominated that I’d seen most of and enjoyed. Whether their films deserve awards or not, I imagine it’s easy for voters, especially the white ones, to check off boxes for Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence simply because these are people who’ve had ample opportunity to star in a variety of things that show their talent as actors. Even if you’re not thinking of Joy while voting, perhaps you’re remembering that you enjoyed American Hustle, Silver Lining Playbook, or The Hunger Games or X-Men franchises. If Leonardo DiCaprio wins an Oscar this year for The Revenant I’ll go to my grave swearing it’s actually for Catch Me If You Can or The Aviator.
Jennifer Lawrence has made three movies a year since 2011. Michael B. Jordan made one movie in 2014. Despite being active in the business for longer than Lawrence, 2015 is the first time he’s released more than one film in a single year. This means she’s had triple the chance for interviews, soundbites, fake celebrity friendships, and quirky red carpet stumbles to stick in the public’s mind. Jordan’s not been offered the chance to make the same impact.
The strangest part is that as hard as it seems to be for Hollywood to imagine more roles for actors of colour, they’re the most obvious things in the world to me. Brooklyn reminded me how much I’d loved t Re:Jane — a book about a Korean-American girl from Queens who attempts to find herself and love in both America and Korea — and that I’d happily watch it play out on screen. If there’s room for a major studio backed movie about a blonde lady who invented a mop, there’s room for a movie about the man who invented the Supersoaker, or the woman who changed the landscape of Black hair care. I’d love to see Gina Rodriguez nominated for an unexpected Oscar because she got to stand out in a witty comedy written by some Hollywood darling, a la Bridesmaids. We’re about to get our 4th Batman film of the past 11 years, and yet no one has called on Pedro Pascal to reboot the Zorro franchise. It’s not difficult to think of all the movies that could be Brown Oscar Bait, or just entertaining, to mass audiences if Hollywood would just think to make and cast them.
As an actor like Sean Penn isn’t just regulated to making Milk, actors of colour shouldn’t be regulated to being recognised for the so called Important Movies (™) like Selma and 12 Years a Slave. We need more Creeds and more Straight Out of Comptons; more variety. It’s time for Hollywood to figure out a bottom-up approach on casting, the stories that written with people of colour in mind, and the marketing of said films to meet the Academy’s top-down approach in membership and voting change.