February 23, 2018

2018 Oscar Watch: Diversity in Hollywood

12_01446By Angelique Harris

The Academy Awards are one of the most revered of the award shows in Hollywood. Although the lack of diversity in who receives nominations and awards has been called into question various times in the past, there was little traction until 2015, when the #OscarsSoWhite movement was born.

The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was created on Twitter by April Reign, the managing editor of BroadwayBlack.com, when the Oscar announcements were made and there were no contenders of color for best acting categories. In fact, adding fuel to the fire, even in films with Black leads, such as Creed and Straight Outta Compton, those nominated for Oscars (Sylvester Stallone for best supporting actor and Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff for screenwriting, respectively) were White. After this glaring lack of diversity, the same thing happened the following year, with no best actor nominees of color. As a result, many celebrities boycotted the event, such as Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Will Smith, who refused to attend while many others, including President Obama, spoke publically about this issue.

In the almost 90-year history of the Academy Awards, 16 Black actors received awards in acting categories: Hattie McDaniel was the first to win in 1940 and Viola Davis was the most recent to win in 2016. Throughout the years, five Latinx actors have received awards – the last awarded in 2001, three Asian American/Pacific Islander actors have received awards – the last being in 1985, and only one Indigenous actor (of Irish-Cherokee descent) received the award – in 1972.

After Bollywood (films made in India), the U.S. is the second largest producer of films in the world. In 2013, the U.S. produced 738 films (representing only a fraction of the films produced in Bollywood, 1,724 films during that same year). The heads of all of the Hollywood studios are male with 94% being White.

It is also important to note that the voting membership of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (the organization that grants the Oscars), perhaps not surprisingly, have mostly been White men. In 2013, 77% of voters were men and 94% were White. Recognizing this issue and that the Oscars can symbolize true change in Hollywood, the Academy decided to make changes with efforts to double the number of women and people of color who are able to vote for Oscars. It is also important to note that the president of the Academy is a Black woman.

In terms of diversity in the U.S., at 61%, Whites are the largest racial demographic in the nation, followed by Blacks at 13.3%, and Latinxs, who are the largest ethnic minority group in the nation, at 17.8%. Clearly the U.S. is more diverse than what is portrayed in film and what is represented in Hollywood, particularly in the elite circles of Hollywood.

In a study conducted by University of Southern California, just miles from Hollywood, of 21,000 characters in over 400 films and TV shows that were released between 2014-2015, it was found that less than one third of speaking characters (28.3%) were people of color, while people of color represent approximately 40% of the U.S. population. They also found that about one third (33.5%) of speaking characters were female.

The numbers were even more stark behind the camera,—the study showed that only 7% of directors were female. Furthermore, this study found that the most underrepresented group on and off camera are Latinx people, who represent 17% of the total U.S. population but just 5.8% of characters in TV and film.

Despite the lack of balanced diversity in Hollywood, on television, and in film, actors of color are among the highest grossing in Hollywood. For example, the Fast and the Furious films have a refreshingly diverse cast and are one of the most popular film franchises in Hollywood, making two of its actors, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Vin Diesel, among the highest paid actors in Hollywood.

The 2017 Academy Awards showed the clear efforts to increase diversity in the Academy. Moonlight’s successes distinguish the film as achieving a milestone in the industry. Mahershali Ali was the first Muslim individual to win an Oscar in an acting category; the film itself was the first queer film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. In fact, the film did not feature one White character. With increased diversity in the Academy, there is not only increased racial diversity among winners but there is also a stronger appreciation for the intersection of identities, such as the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class, and religion in the characters and stories portrayed on film.

Although the 2018 Academy Awards have not yet aired, we continue to see recognition of diverse talent as several actors of color have been nominated– Octavia Spencer, Mary J. Blige, Daniel Kaluuya, and Denzel Washington, as well as Get Out, a film directed and produced by Jordan Peele, a Black writer and comedian. While a nomination does not guarantee a win, we have already begun to see the impact of increased diversity in the Academy’s voting membership on the selection of actors and films nominated this year. As this trend continues, one can hope that films, television shows, and the companies that produce them will be as diverse as the society of people they aim to portray on screen.


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