Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Absher: The Saudi 'Wife-Tracking' App

Absher: The Saudi App That Let's You Track Your Women

As many of you know from the countless news outlets and my previous post that earlier this month Saudi Arabia relaxed its male guardianship law. Thus, allowing anyone over the age of twenty-one to travel abroad without prior consent and apply for a passport without the permission of a male guardian. This had been hailed as a revolutionary move by Crown Prince Salman, however, as my previous post focused on the women who campaigned for these revolutionary changes have been detained and subject to countless instances of abhorrent torture. Yet, this change is not all it seems, via Twitter hashtag الجوازات_تخالف_القرارات# (passports), women have reported that their guardians still get notifications of when women apply for passports and thus putting vulnerable women at risk of honour-based violence. This led me to discover the inner workings of the application that provides this service, named Absher (good tidings in Arabic) which allows men to track their female dependents. This article will discuss how the app works, untangle the wave of tweets around the Saudi passport situation and provide an update into the case of Saudi activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, who has reached some backhanded progress into her release.

It was not until I had been sent some tweets via a discord server I am part of that I came across the hashtag الجوازات_تخالف_القرارات#, which after putting it through google translate comes out as meaning passports.

The account @ican_33 tweeted - "my dad received a text message that I requested my passport and when I inquired as to why this occurred as I have my own account with my own number the employee told me that the guardian has the right to know and they will continue sending these texts."

@yak33_ tweeted - "what is the right to send a letter to the father when the passport is issued to me ??????? I cancelled the date that I took."

Another account @Aa2_1435 tweeted - "I was surprised that a message was sent extracting to the mobile phone of my father, although I have a special account Babshar guardian mobile phone for my account and possible after the letter was sent to divorce since the son did not become a follower of the system under my name" followed by a text screenshot from a mobile phone. A user responds to her tweet explaining that that male guardian registered with Absher, that any messages his women dependents receive are sent to his device without seeking prior permission of the female account holders.

Most of the tweets under the hashtag seem to say similar things, both sharing screenshots of the text notifications. The general consensus is an air of confusion around the situation, with women being unsure of what this means when they actually wish to travel and apply for visas. Trying to scour the internet for any other information is proving unfruitful, little to no reporting from any news outlet, mainstream or fringe. I hope that in the upcoming weeks there is more information that breaks out, and will keep an eye out for anything more on the passport situation. But, what this has revealed to me is the app that allows this tracking of women in the country.

Bill Bostock for Insider broke the news story on Absher, the Saudi tracking app. The article tells the chilling story of a Saudi girl by the name of Shadad al-Mohaimeed and her upcoming escape from her family. She took her family's credit cards, keys, passports and their phones with the aim to slow them down when they eventually try to track her down. A year in the making the seventeen-year-old finally embarked on her escape, leaving the hotel her family was staying at in Turkey, walking down the street for the first time since she was ten without wearing the full-body covering expected to be worn by Saudi women and girls. She details the robotic routine of her life and the abuse she encountered. Her father used to bind her wrists and ankles with ropes when she was seen in the company of men who were not family members and lived under the fear of constant death threats.

She notes not even being allowed to buy products for her period and it was her brother with his $1,600 monthly allowance given by their father, who bought her supplies for the natural once a month occurrence. She was not the only woman in her family to be controlled by the guardianship laws. Her mother was not allowed access to the money she earns from her job, she did not have her own bank account, all her money went to her husband because she was his property in his eyes.

Shahad not only had to face physical barriers of leaving her family and country, but also technological restrictions. This is where Absher comes into play. A government system, which exists in its most simplest form, through a smartphone app. Absher has various meanings in Arabic from, 'your request is granted,' to 'good tidings' or 'at your service.' It is the male guardianship laws in action. The app contains a log on Saudi Arabian citizens with the intentions to prevent women to travel and catch them out when they try to leave without the permission of their male guardians.

The app allows you to do the simple everyday government processes such as register births, pay parking fines or renew your license. Like a simple HMRC app, but with the added bonus for Saudi men, track your woman and revoke travel permission with a simple tap of a few buttons. They can set off-limit destinations and even enable an SMS feature, which texts them when a woman uses her passport at a border crossing or airport check-in. This is why for Shahad and many others like Rahaf Mohammed escaping whilst on holiday where Absher is not reachable. Insider has attempted to contact Saudi authorities on the system directly and via their embassies in the US and UK, but the Saudi government is yet to respond.

This story from Insider came out before the relaxation of the laws and there is yet to be any new reporting on whether Absher itself has been altered to fit with the new freedoms given to women. According to the Twitter hashtag mentioned above, the fathers of women seeking passports of their own are still being notified. It seems that as a woman of twenty-one years old can seek a passport and travel alone, as long as your father approves, thus making the new reforms disappointing. Men angered by these reforms can still include in their marriage contracts that his wife cannot travel without his permission, still treating women like property and making the new laws completely irrelevant. It is important to note that these laws really only benefit women who were already allowed to travel by their male guardians, making it easier for them. It does not benefit all Saudi women, especially the silent majority who face immense restrictions on their lives. In the cases of many, it puts their lives at risk over the simple document that is a passport.

The confusion around the specifics of the new reforms which been masked by media celebration is emphasised by Rothna Begum, a senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, she says that the Saudi government is "trying to take as much credit as possible without having already done. They have got all the headlines." Begum even refers to Absher which still needs to be dismantled for these reforms to have any real meaning.

Finally, there has been an update into the case of Loujain al-Hathloul, the Saudi activist who has been detained and tortured for over a year. Those of you who have read my previous post will be well acquainted with her, but those who are new Loujain is a remarkable woman defying Saudi standards in the campaign for equality. She was detained last year for her work in the campaign for women to drive and has been to subject to countless amounts of torture for the past year. Two weeks ago, news came out that Loujain would be freed, under the circumstances that she would sign documents and appear on camera denying that she had been tortured and subject to sexual harassment whilst imprisoned. This news comes from her brother, who tweeted that - "our initial agreement was that she will sign the document in which she will deny she had been tortured. And that's why we remained silent in the past few weeks," he also stated that "asking to appear on a video and to deny the torture doesn't sound like a realistic demand." Her sister, Lina,  even felt at risk tweeting that her sister had been tortured and sexually harassed. But, her other sister, Alia desperate to see her sister tweeted that her sister should accept the offer and tweeted - "Deny what happened even if you have to record it on camera, what is important is that you are with us, I miss you."

But, Loujain herself has rejected the offer, her brother Walid said - "When the state security asked her to sign the document for the video release, she immediately ripped the document. She told them by asking me to sign this document you are involved in the cover-up and you're simply trying (to) defend Saud Al-Qahtani who was overseeing the torture. This is the latest news to be found on her case, further showing the immense bravery and strength of this woman, Loujain is one I will admire for my entire lifetime. A woman who is so strong-willed and dedicated to her cause and will not be silenced. It is then the duty of myself and those who hear about Loujain to share her story and amplify her voice while, for the current moment, she cannot.


Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Saudi Grants Women the Right to Travel Alone, Yet Imprisons and Tortures the Women Who Fight For These Rights

Saudi Grants Women the Right to Travel Alone, Yet Imprisons and Tortures the Women  Who Fight For These Rights


As I am sure many of you have heard of, and if you have not, this week Saudia Arabia has relaxed its male guardianship law, which now allows women to travel outside of the country freely. Now, this is an event to be celebrated for the millions of women living in the country, but it is one to be celebrated with a huge pinch of salt. Why? Because the reforms are not as rosy coloured as they are seen to be and the country continues to imprison and torture the women who were brave enough to stand up to the repressive laws against women, which treat them as second class citizens. So, before you celebrate and applaud the Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi government on their progressive actions, I would like to introduce you to the incredible women who have fought for this freedom but are yet to be credited for their tireless efforts and experience the freedom for themselves.

Announced Friday, August 2nd all women over the age of 21 are able to apply for a passport without authorisation. They have also been granted the right to register births, marriage or divorce, as a result of this ruling. Moreover, it has rolling implications on women's right to work without facing discrimination based on gender, disability or age. This is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's plan to transform the Saudi economy by 2030 with the aim of increasing the participation of women in the workforce. This historic move comes a little over a year after Saudi Arabia granted women the right to drive.

In the old system, the male guardianship law gives husbands, fathers and other male relatives authority over the women in their family in making critical life decisions. However, some of these life decisions still remain in the hands of their male relatives, such as that of the right to marry, to live on their own. Women do not pass on citizenship to their children and neither are they allowed to provide consent for their children to marry.

Even writing this the terminology I have read about and that I am using unnerves me, women should never have to be granted permission to do this, it should just be. Again, this is easy for me to say living in a Western country where these rights have existed for me and women before me for a lot longer than women in Saudi Arabia. It goes without saying we cannot discuss the male guardianship and where it comes from without referencing the theocratic state of the country, with its laws grounded in the religion of Islam. Saudi Arabia's legal system is one rooted in Sharia Law -- Islamic law, which is derived from the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad. There is no codification of rules or system of judicial precedent, there are several schools of Islamic law which offer opinions on specific issues of the law. Saudi Arabia traditionally follows the Hanbali school of thought, but this has become watered down with time, yet some courts still apply Hanbali law.

Understanding the Islamic context of the laws of Saudi makes it easier to understand where the male guardianship system of laws comes from. There is rooting in the Quran itself, predominantly in the chapter of the Quran which is hailed by many Muslims for its dedication to women, the chapter in question - Surah Nisa.  "Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintainence] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard." (4:34). Within the context of this verse and how the Saudi government and legal system works, it becomes very self-explanatory as to where the male guardianship system has been derived from. Alas, this post is not about religion, although it is important to understand its use in the Saudi state and whole other post could be written on it, this post is to raise awareness and celebrate the remarkable efforts of the women being silenced by the Saudi regime.

Now to introduce the incredibly brave women who have fought for the above freedoms, yet have been silenced over the last year in a crackdown on Saudi feminists. Loujain al-Hathloul is one of the most well-known from the Saudi women's rights movement. Her story is one that is deeply saddening and incredibly chilling. Loujain was pulled over whilst driving in the UAE in April 2018 and was deported back to Saudi Arabia, where she was detained for three days and freed. She was taken from her family home in Riyadh, where she was blindfolded and tossed into the boot of car to be taken to a detention centre she has called the "palace of terror." Hathloul has been tortured and threatened with rape and death. This has been going on for over a year, as of right now she is still being held by the Saudi government. Saud al-Qahtani, former advisor to the Crown Prince had overseen her torture, according to Loujain's brother, Walid. Walid has said that his sister said that al-Qahtani "sat in one of the sessions. He told her: 'I'll kill you, cut you into pieces, throw you into the sewer system. But before that, I'll rape you." Despite, the horrific treatment she has been going through her brother emphasised her concerns for the fate of women in Saudi.

Loujain is not the only one, she was arrested along with ten other women in the government's attempts to silence the outspoken women who had initially campaigned for the right to drive. The arrests consisted of campaigners Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan. Aziza al-Yousef, a retired professor of computer science, mother to five children and grandmother of eight. She is a leading women's rights activist in Saudi and has worked with other activists like Hathloul to establish a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. Eman al-Nafjan is known for her online work in her blog entitled, Saudiwoman's Weblog, which focuses on Saudi society, culture, women and human rights issues.

Alongside other activists, both women were imprisoned weeks before the driving ban was lifted in 2018. Al-Yousef and al-Nafjan reported incidents of physical and sexual abuses they were subject to during their imprisonment and were released on bail this year. Amnesty International explains some of the treatment women like Azizia, Eman and Loujain experienced. This includes an interrogator falsely telling a detainee that her family members had died and was made to believe this for an entire month. Another account stated that two activists were forced to kiss each other while interrogators watched and another reported waterboarding, another reported electric shock torture which is consistent with Al-Hathloul's injuries reported by her parents.

Eleven women were put on trial for a coordinated activity to undermine the security, stability and social peace of the kingdom due to accusations that they had been in contact with foreign diplomats and journalists. Women fighting for the right to drive, for the right to travel, for the right to have autonomy over themselves and the decisions they make are seen as a threat to the running of the Saudi state. That sounds like a very fragile state to me, if it can be dismantled by women demanding their right to control over their own bodies and lives. Seven of the women have been bailed out in early 2019, but Hathloul's family are not hopeful of Loujain's release. Observers have said the particularly horrific treatment of Loujain was due to her role as a lead feminist campaigner, as her trial continues to drag on there seems to be no end in sight.

And this is why we need to be cautious of the Saudi state and not applaud Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and instead make a much louder noise as to why his state is capturing and torturing the women who have been fighting for the reforms he is being praised for. It is also worth noting the highly publicised case of Rahaf Mohammed and more recently, the case of the Al-Showaiki sisters (Dua and Dalal) who have taken the risk of escaping the country and as a result their cases permeated into the Western media and both parties have been given help by legal counsel and journalists in the West and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau granting Rahaf a special fast-tracked refugee status. Finally, if you really want to be seen as a progressive Muslim state, one that is championing women's rights reforms, Prince Salman, free the women who have been fighting for this change or is your state so fragile that the freedom of a few strong, intelligent and outspoken women can cause Saudi Arabia to crumble?

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Netflix Effect: The Impact of Streaming Sites in Diversifying Hollywood

The Netflix Effect: The Impact of Streaming Sites in Diversifying Hollywood

Online streaming services have revolutionised the way we consume film and television by offering a wide catalogue of film and television available in full at the click of a button in exchange for a monthly fee. The online giant Netflix has claimed dominance in this arena through its wide range of content and has made headlines as champions of diversity and racial representation (Edmond Jr., 2018). Therefore, it is necessary to explore why they have made the ‘risky’ move to greenlight numerous minority-led and minority centred stories and what allows them to do this. Through this exploration, there are issues raised to the extent of how diverse Netflix and whether their business reflects their message because their workforce does not seem to replicate the diversity in their catalogue (Edmond Jr., 2018). Finally, this chapter will look at the fight Netflix has been battling with the awarding bodies, since the success of foreign language film Roma at the 2019 Academy Awards ceremony there has been backlash from the industry insiders, who believe that Netflix productions are not worthy of Academy acclaim because they do not conform to traditional cinematic releases.

Before looking at why Netflix has decided to make a commitment to diverse programming, it is important to understand how the company works and how their system supports the risk-taking associated with piloting projects with stories focused on minorities and led by minority casts. The risk under discussion is, as Nielsen’s Vice President of Multicultural Growth and Strategy outlines, the “assumption that content with diverse casts or themes is niche, and therefore comes with inherent perceived risk because of limited audience appeal,” (Berg, 2017). Mike Royce, the co-executive producer of Cuban-American remake of One Day at a Time, summarises Netflix’s operating system very well by comparing the service to a supermarket, “you can go in and get whatever you want whenever you want as opposed to just one thing on at one time, so [Netflix is] happy to try things out,” (Viruet, 2017). Therefore, like a supermarket trying out a new product, Netflix can put these new projects on display but if they are not successful with their buyers, they can remove them from the shelves, just as a supermarket would. Streaming sites like Netflix do not play by traditional televisions rules, as they provide on-demand content and television series in full rather than televisions one episode a week release in exchange for a monthly subscription fee (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). Additionally, the service does not rely upon the funding of advertising neither do they have to fight for the primetime episode slots (Paulsen, 2018). Thus, their model focuses on content distribution, which allows them to give the creators free reign.

Cindy Holland, Netflix’s Vice President of Original Content describes her production philosophy as “creator driven,” (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). The attractiveness of Netflix is supported by content creators, such as Narcos co-creator Chris Brancato. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Brancato said that when he spoke to Holland, "I said [Spanish subtitles] could be up to 30 percent of the show, and she looked at me and said, 'Or 40 percent?' And I remember feeling like my head was about to explode, because you very rarely if ever get back that kind of suggestion at a regular network,” (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). This move shows that Netflix is committed to the diversification of programming and are willing to take the risks that network television would not do so easily.

There have been questions around whether Netflix is really committed to diverse programming with Kashann Kilson comparing the move to 90s-era Fox (Kilson, 2016). In the 90s, Fox was in a similar situation as Netflix was in 2016 in the fight for legitimacy (Netflix with network television), as Fox was trying to become the fourth broadcast network, but with a limited budget Fox executives focused on creating urban comedies and dramas that the other networks would not (Kilson, 2016). The formula was successful because it took on shows that would not be touched by other networks, casting minority actors, which gave them a week’s worth of programming for pennies on the dollar (Kilson, 2016). Essentially, they were high risk but at a low cost and they became successes because there was nothing like them on television. The production of shows like In Living Color gave Fox the legitimacy they were fighting for with successes of the shows and when this was achieved Fox moved onto, as Kilson calls it “whiter pastures,” with the network being found to be the whitest network in the 2000 Screen Actors Guild report (Kilson, 2016). The worry is that Netflix may take the approach Fox has done and that after the immediate success of a few programs they will lose focus on diversity.

However, Pilot Viruet ushers in positivity with Netflix’s commissioning of Dear White People, a series based on the Justin Simien’s 2014 film, which not only features people of colour but is about people of colour and explores issues of race and culture of African-American students in an mostly-white Ivy League university (Viruet, 2017). The show is an excellent example of why producing diverse content is still considered a risk. After the release of the trailer, Tim Treadstone, a former Buzzfeed writer and member of the alt-right tweeted the show was anti-white and promoted “white genocide,” alongside a screenshot of his deleted Netflix account (Viruet, 2017). This resistance was a risk that paid off for Netflix with the show releasing its second season in 2018 scoring 100% critics consensus on Rotten Tomatoes and has been commissioned for a third series (Rotten Tomatoes, 2018; Nguyen, 2019). Furthermore, a recent Nielsen study echoes the notion that programs with a “predominantly black cast, or a main storyline focusing on a black character, are drawing a substantial non-black viewership, too,” (Viruet, 2017). Therefore, demonstrating that programs like Dear White People, which are focused on black characters and their stories are not limited to the black audience and that Treadstone’s criticisms and deletion of his membership have had little effect on the success of Netflix’s move to diverse programming.

Netflix’s success can also be measured in the stars it has created. Their original series Orange Is The New Black (2013-) has launched the careers of black actresses Uzo Aduba and Laverne Cox, who is also transgender (Kilson, 2016; IMDb, 2019). By taking the risk in casting these minority Cox and Aduba, Netflix has created Emmy nominated actress and producer Laverne Cox and Emmy winning Uzo Aduba (IMDb, 2019; IMDb, 2019). Furthermore, the support for streaming in championing diversity is evident in a University of Southern California study (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). The report found that in streaming content 29.4% of speaking roles were given to black and other minority characters compared to  26.7% in film (Smith, et al., 2016). The Huffington Post carried their own study by applying the “DuVernay Test,” to original scripted dramas and comedies on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and the Big Three U.S. networks ABC, CBS and NBC (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). The test named after director Ava DuVernay and created by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis assess diverse programs as those which include black and other minority characters with “fully realized lives” rather than token characters (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). Out of the 61 streaming shows they examined 36% passed the DuVernay test and 33% of 58 network shows passed the test (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). From this, the conclusion that can be drawn is that television and streaming are not that different in their representation of minorities. Nevertheless, this initial push from streaming services has ushered in change within traditional film and television production with their award wins cementing streaming’s legitimacy in the film and television industry, it seems like executives are taking note from the numerous studies that diversity does sell. This is demonstrated in HBO’s Insecure debuted in 2016, which follows “the awkward experiences and racy tribulations of a modern-day African-American woman,” and draws in 61.5% non-black audience (Berg, 2017; IMDb, 2019). The figures show that this risk associated with producing non-white led shows and stories will not draw in the viewership is not the case anymore and with the help of streaming showing this it had has let to network television to follow suit.

Netflix is not perfect in its move towards diversity with its release of Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous Six (Viruet, 2017). The project was so offensive that Native American cast and crew walked off set in protest to insulting scenes about Native elders and women (Schilling, 2015). These included Native women’s names such as “No Bra” and misrepresentations in the dress of the Apache tribe (Schilling, 2015). Furthermore, despite their commitment to diverse programming the company has come under fire for not reflecting this commitment with their workforce. Alfred Edmond Jr. draws attention to this in his 2018 article, which shows that Netflix’s board, senior management and executives are all white, and only 4% of their workforce is black (Edmond Jr., 2018). This is echoed in a 2017 study conducted by the Directors Guild of America, which ranked Netflix studios last out of 10 studios for the diversity of its film and TV directors with 29% of the episodes on the service were directed by women or people of colour (Shaw, 2018; Directors Guild of America, 2017). The previous examples raise similar issues discussed in the previous chapter surrounding minorities in executive positions. With Sandler’s offensive depictions of Native Americans in The Ridiculous Six, it is worth considering that if there was more minority representation higher up in the workforce that a production like that would not have been screened. Moreover, the company has been the centre of racial controversy with the firing of Jonathan Friedland in June 2018 after the use of a racial slur among human resource executives (Shaw, 2018).

With the light shone on the diversity problems within the company, Netflix has worked their way towards change in the workplace. Following the firing of Friedland, Netflix hired an executive to lead their diversity and inclusion campaign, with CEO Reed Hastings wrote in a memo that they have “started to engage outside experts to help us learn faster,” (Shaw, 2018). This commitment to not only diversifying content but also the workforce has been sustained and can be seen in the new employment figures for the company. From 2019, 42% of the company is from a racial minority background, with 31% in leadership roles, 41% in creative and corporate roles and 44% in tech roles (Netflix, 2019).

Finally, with Netflix produced Roma garnering numerous Academy Award wins at the 91st ceremony, it did not come without debate, which demonstrates the sheer influence that the streaming giant has had on the industry and how we consume film and television. Members of Hollywood criticised the Academy and Netflix for its push on Roma during awards season arguing that the streamed project is not worthy of academy accolade because it does not reflect the cinematic experience (Scharf, 2019). The controversy stems from Roma’s nomination for Best Picture at the 2019 Academy Awards because of its limited theatrical release. Netflix showed the film in a token number of theatres saying it fit within the same width of release that a foreign language film would receive from a traditional distributor (Zeitchik, 2019). Netflix further broke with tradition by showing Roma for only three weeks before debuting it on their streaming platform, which angered defenders of the cinematic experience, such as Academy member Steven Spielberg who began championing rival production Green Book as a vote for cinema (Scharf, 2019). The backlash to Netflix and the way it has chosen to stream Roma so soon after the cinematic release shows the way streaming is challenging how we consume film. Netflix’s actions are showing that the cinematic experience has changed and is not confined to the big screen. Additionally, Roma’s success at the Oscars further legitimises Netflix as a distributor and challenges the perception of what makes an ‘Oscar-worthy’ film.

Without working with Netflix Roma would not have been made, at least not in the vision of the director, with one studio reported to pass the project on because of its unknown actors (Scharf, 2018). Director Alfonso Cuarón expresses his concerns in an interview, in which he stated he was worried about the theatrical release because the film is a ”Spanish-language drama shot in black and white” featuring “a cast of unknown actors,” (Scharf, 2018). He elaborates on this in an interview with Variety after the Oscars (Scharf, 2019; Lang, 2019). Cuarón outlines how difficult it is to see foreign language films in the cinema because most theatres play “big Hollywood films,” and states that Netflix “were willing to change their model to accommodate what we were looking for,” which he did not get from traditional studios when they were approached (Lang, 2019). Cuarón’s concerns further emphasise the struggle that filmmakers go through in producing authentically diverse productions by highlighting the resistance that the traditional studio shows. Thus, leading to creators moving towards streaming services, like Netflix, who give the creators control over their productions.
In the end, Netflix has changed the way film and television is consumed by giving the consumer full control over what they watch and when they watch it, as well as giving their creators a level of control over their projects which has not been seen in traditional film and television production. 

Through critical acclaim, Emmy and Oscar recognition they have legitimised the streaming platform as a valued competitor among network television and Hollywood film. It is through this legitimacy, that they have influenced network television into taking the risks of producing stories about minority characters led by minority casts because they have shown to pay off for the streaming giant. Yet, Netflix is not perfect in its representation with their workforce needing improvement in its racial representation, but they have taken the risk Hollywood was too scared to do first. 

Where Does the Responsibility Lie? Justifications, Controversies and Improvements in the American Casting System


Where Does the Responsibility Lie? Justifications, Controversies and Improvements in the American Casting System

This chapter identifies some of the problems of diversity in the American film and television industry, as a much more complex issue than just the awarding bodies being at fault, and that in fact, it is a systematic issue that is deeply entrenched in the production process. The first part of the chapter will highlight the existing problems in the casting industry and shed light on the stark contrasts between the availability of roles for minority actors in relation to their white counterparts. Secondly, this chapter will analyse the justifications for the controversial issue of whitewashing, which focuses on financial concerns of a minority-led project and the difficulty of remaining authentic to pre-existing material, especially in relation to comic-book adaptations. Finally, this chapter will look at new casting methods aimed at increasing diversity, namely colour-blind casting and its success.


Before delving into the problems with the casting process, it is important to understand how it operates and the effects this has on a minority actor’s ability to secure employment. The casting breakdown is a document that tells the reader what roles are being cast for a film, which is used to communicate to actors and their agents what roles are available and are used in preparation for auditions (McGrail, 2019). In relation to character descriptions, a breakdown lists whether the role is a lead, major supporting character or minor supporting role, personality, the description of what the character’s role in the film is and physical such as age, gender, race and physical appearance (Sinckler, 2014:858; McGrail, 2019). This is taken from the writers’ descriptions of the character but are up to the discretion of the producers and can be changed (Robinson, 2007:4-5). The most influential decision-maker in who gets cast lies at the top of the production hierarchy, which is outlined by Russell Robinson, who states that the studio executives have the ultimate decision then the order of influence follows with the producers, directing and finally, the casting director at the bottom of this pyramid (Robinson, 2007:6-7). The casting director is essentially an organiser, a person to flesh out the weaker talent to ultimately present the cream of the crop to the executive and have the ultimate authority to exclude an actor or category of actors on race or sex, yet this would remain hidden from the public (Robinson, 2007:7). This echoes the arguments made in the first chapter about ethnicity being an unnamed qualifying factor in rewarding talent in awards shows, which then becomes an unnamed qualifier for roles. Robinson’s periodic study into the casting breakdowns from June to August 2006, which found that 22.5% of all roles called directly for Caucasian actors, 8.1% African-American actors, 5.2% Latino actors, 4.3% Asian-American and minuscule 0.5% Native-American, support the impression of underrepresentation (Sinckler, 2014:859). From these figures, then it is hardly surprising that minority actors do not receive accolades for their performances when the roles available for them are not equal.

Robinson then takes this argument of authority and decision-making further by bringing in the writing room, as he mentions that writers state the race of a character in the script, which although they have no power over casting, is used as a guideline for the executives (Robinson, 2007:7). Taking this argument further the Writers Guild of America found that in 2014 only 537 minority writers were employed in the television sector in comparison to 3548 white writers and in the film sector, there were 114 minority writers in comparison to 1494 white writers (Hunt, 2016). This is not to say that white writers can only write about white stories, but it shows minorities through the white lens rather than through the minority lens and can lead to potentially inaccurate or skewed representations of minorities.

Furthermore, an executive producer of Law & Order stated that “there is a phenomenon that if you don’t specify race in a script, nine times out of ten a white person will be cast – that if you want a person of color you write it down and if you want a white person you don’t write it,” (Sinckler, 2014:859). This implies among producers that white actors are considered the norm, which is further supported by an L.A. Times article that stated “[C]asting directors and agents agree that each character in the Breakdowns is assumed to be white, but sometimes . . . casting directors get emphatic by adding ‘Caucasian,” (Robinson, 2007:11). This sentiment is echoed among prominent actors themselves in their struggles to gain work. For example, Halle Berry was initially denied the lead role in Things We Lost in the Fire (2007) because it was written for a white woman. It was not until she met with and asked the director “do you care about the colour of my skin? Do you care that this wasn’t written for a black woman?” upon this meeting she landed the role (Sinckler, 2014:860). The problem here is that minority actors are not even considered for the same roles as white actors when race is not a necessity to the role. Moreover, Berry herself at this point was already an established actress with an Academy Award under her belt, upcoming minority actors would not have this opportunity (IMDb, 2019). Additionally, what can be drawn from this is that the industry has got too comfortable with casting white actors as the norm and Hollywood needs the push, like Berry herself did, to create more diverse casts.

Whitewashing, the act of casting a white lead in a role that was originally written for a minority actor is a practice that has been plaguing Hollywood for decades, but only in recent years has become a matter of public attention. The moviegoer is becoming more socially aware of whitewashing in film, and this is clearly demonstrated in the petition that surfaced with the announcement of a live-action Mulan film, which garnered over 30,000 signatures to not whitewash the film citing the damaging effects that whitewashing can have on audiences and society’s perceptions of minorities (Denham, 2015). The arguments made by the petitioner echo, the view put forward by McNamara, in the first chapter, that by telling the stories of and rewarding white actors in overwhelming numbers shows the value we place on those individuals in society and who we are calling our heroes (Boram Chattoo, 2018:373; McNamara, 2016). This can be incredibly damaging to society because of the pattern of whitewashing suggests to audiences from minority backgrounds that they are not worthy of being heroes (Denham, 2015). This argument is echoed by actress Constance Wu, who calls out Hollywood’s pattern of racial erasure in a twitter post (Gonzalez, 2016). In this she references Matt Damon’s casting in the film, The Great Wall in which he is the lead ‘hero’ for the Chinese people (IMDb, 2019) arguing that by whitewashing it creates an “implied racist notion that white people are superior to POC [People of Colour] and that POC need salvation from our own colour via white strength,” (Gonzalez, 2016).

With this recent public backlash to whitewashed films from both the actors and consumers, what is the justification for this outdated practice? The answer lies in the financial costs. The film industry is a business and unfortunately, many filmmakers who participate in the culture of whitewashing seem to value money over authenticity and equal representation. For example, Ridley Scott is incredibly guilty of this practice and has not shied away from justifying his decision to erase racial representation. A notable case is his film Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), where majority of the cast are whitewashed roles of biblical characters whose heritage lies in Egypt, Scott justifies his casting choices by saying ““Well gee, shouldn’t Moses have been black and shouldn’t the wife be Ethiopian”, well I don’t know, I wasn’t there. And also, I would never have got it, it would have been limited,” (Lee, 2015; Isaacs, 2019; IMDb, 2019). This ignorant statement made by Scott in 2014, echoes the ‘white sells,’ industry norm. Furthermore, to say “I don’t know, I wasn’t there,” does not make sense as a justification because that could be argued about any historical film (Lee, 2015). His final sentence echoes a deeper and much more worrying sentiment – “I would never have got it, it would have been limited,” – essentially Scott is acknowledging the problem of being able to fund a film with authentically diverse casts, but instead of trying to change the system he is perpetuating these harmful practices (Lee, 2015).

Additionally, this has wider implications for the future of the film industry because if prominent and powerful filmmakers like Scott are unwilling to make a change with the platform they have, then this limited approach is going to continue because they are unable to nurture and create ‘marketable,’ minority actors. The following comment made by an actor summarises this well – “when Hollywood says there isn’t an Asian actor big enough, it’s like a farmer saying that he doesn’t have any crops – Hollywood, you didn’t even plant the seeds,” (Cleo Yap, 2018). This quote proves that the bankable star argument is no justifiable in the twenty-first century, especially when you have financial box office successes like Crazy Rich Asians (2018) becoming the most successful studio romantic-comedy in the nine years and Black Panther (2018) has earned over $1.3 billion worldwide (McClintock, 2018; IMDb, 2019). In which, both films feature minority-led casts with relatively unknown lead actors and therefore verifies that increasing diversity cannot be tied to the financial success of a film, thus the marketability argument is no longer a valid justification for whitewashing. Although, Scott may not be systematically casting white actors, as he does cast minority actors in his films, but is still guilty of ‘whitewashing’ The Martian by casting a black actor and a female actor in two roles written for Asian-Americans which was released a year after Exodus (Lee, 2015).

In contrast, Alex Garland director of Annihilation (2018) responded to criticisms of whitewashing by accepting the wrong that he had participated in (IMDb, 2019).  The film is based on a trilogy of books, which gives a minimal description of its characters and it is not until the third book that it is revealed that the characters portrayed by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh are of Asian and Native American descent (Mazzucato, 2018). The film also used the method of colour-blind casting, which is where the race, ethnicity and/or sex of the actors is not relevant to the casting process and this process allowed for the casting of Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson, a Latina and mixed-raced actresses in lead roles (D'souza-Lodhi, 2018; IMDb, 2019). In response to this problematic casting, Garland acknowledged that whitewashing is a huge problem in Hollywood and took responsibility admitting that he had not read the other books, but “as a middle-aged white man, I can believe that I might at times be guilty of unconscious racism, in the way that potentially we all are,” (Mazzucato, 2018). This move by Garland is respectable, as he has used his platform to publicly acknowledge the privilege, he has in the film industry as a white male and speaks on the contentious issue of whitewashing. Whereas, Scott neglects to comment on The Martian’s whitewashing scandal. Additionally, this film highlights the potential problems with colour-blind casting, in that while it allows for actors like Thompson and Rodriguez to be cast it can lead to the erasure of others.

Authenticity has also been a prominent argument used to challenge the casting of non-white actors in racially ambiguous or interchangeable roles. This features largely in comic book films where race is not an integral part of the individual’s character, personality or role in the story and thus, has led to non-white actors being cast in the role where the comic book character has been traditionally white. This concept has become known as race-bending. Three notable cases of backlash against this casting method occur within the Marvel cinematic franchise, with the casting of Idris Elba as Heimdall in the Thor films, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in The Avengers and more recently, Zendaya as Michelle in the new Spider-Man reboot (Thor, 2011; The Avengers, 2012; Spider-Man: Homecoming, 2017)
Elba’s casting triggered a wave of controversy because according to casting critics, Heimdall is the “whitest of the gods,” and by casting a black actor to play the role was discordant to the film considering it had roots in Norse mythology (Sinckler, 2014:862-863). Similar comments were made about Jackson’s casting as Fury and these cropped up again in 2016 with Zendaya’s casting as the Mary Jane character in the new Spiderman franchise (Child, 2016). Remaining authentic to the comic book or canon is very important in film and filmmakers have received backlash, even when race is not the issue. For example, there was an outcry when Ben Affleck’s Batman had started killing people in the Batman v Superman film and the botched portrayal of iconic Marvel antihero Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) (Child, 2016). This kind of backlash is perfectly acceptable because there has been a fundamental change in the character’s personality, take Batman killing which has never been part of his character and the complete erasure of Deadpool’s “Merc with a Mouth” personality when they sewed his lips together (Child, 2016). However, changing the race of characters like Zendaya’s Michelle/Mary Jane and Jackson’s Nick Fury, do not deviate from the inherent personality and portrayal of the character (Child, 2016; Wight & Roberts, 2012). Therefore, this idea of race being an essential part of canon is an implied racist view. This is justified through the evidence that has shown when white actors are cast in roles meant for minority actors, the defence on the behalf of the whitewashing is incredibly vocal from filmmakers and their production studios. As seen with Scott’s justifications for Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) and the backlash from the race-swap castings in the recent Marvel productions.

There have been steps forward to diversify casting practices in the film and television business, one of the most notable being colour-blind casting. One of the major figureheads of this movement is Shonda Rhimes, who is famously known for employing this practice in her globally successful television programs. As of 2011, she was the only African American woman showrunner who credits her success to her race-blind casting methods, and this can be affirmed in numerous articles and interviews about her (Long, 2011:1067). This wave started with her first major network television series Grey’s Anatomy (2005-ongoing), she took the risk of auditioning “every color actor for every single role” as she notes in an interview with Oprah (Long, 2011:1067-1068). This trend continues with her second stand-alone series Scandal (2012-2018), which takes even bigger risks with an African-American woman leading the show, finally culminating in her third project How to Get Away with Murder (2014-ongoing) (HTGAWM), all featuring extremely diverse casts, again with an older dark-skinned African-American woman as the show's frontrunner (citations). Rhimes had to actively work against industrial assumptions that a racially unmarked character calls for a white actor, as emphasised by Isaiah Washington’s comment on Rhimes – “she said, ‘Look you [talent agencies] continue to bring me all blond-haired, blue-eyed people. I want to see all actors. You can’t tell me all the actors in L.A. are blond and blue-eyed,” (Long, 2011:1068). The revolutionary nature of Rhimes’ method is further echoed by the star of HTGAWM, Viola Davis who said she had seen no “precedent for this role. I’ve never seen anyone, 49-year old, dark-skinned, woman, who is not a size 2 be [in] a sexualised role on TV, film, anywhere, ever,” (Martens & Povoa, 2017). This highlights two very important issues, the first is the importance colour-blind casting has on creating job opportunities for individuals who otherwise would have lost out to the industry norm that unspecified race equals white. Secondly, it shows the significance of the stories that get to be told, with Davis’ shock at the creation of an older, powerful, well-educated and sexualised woman of colour being shown on mainstream television. This echoes the arguments made by McNamara in the very first chapter, the stories we tell and the stories we reward are telling of the kind of stories and people we value in society (Boram Chattoo, 2018:373; McNamara, 2016). Further, emphasising the need for more diverse casts, so people feel like they are being represented on screen.

Nevertheless, there have been criticisms of the practice in general and criticisms aimed directly at Rhimes’ use of colour-blind casting. The first was mentioned previously with the use of colour-blind casting in Annihilation, which resulted in the ethnicities of Asian and Native American lead roles being whitewashed. However, this could have easily been avoided if there had been further research into the book trilogy and was simply a research blunder, rather than a malicious attempt to erase the ethnicity of these characters (Mazzucato, 2018). Emil Martens and Debora Povoa conduct a lengthy critique piece on Rhimes’ use of colour-blind casting focusing on the American Law School drama, How to Get Away with Murder. They argue that her use of colour-blind casting has created a myth of a post-racial America, dating this start with Barack Obama’s presidency and ending with the election of Donald Trump, arguing that this is dangerous because the trend in diversity casting has succumbed to the failure of “acknowledging or addressing cultural and social differences” (Martens & Povoa, 2017). They use the example of the characters racial backgrounds being dismissed and only used as “proofs of authenticity,” through the example of the Latina character Laurel, her ethnicity only comes out at a family dinner in which she gets into a heated argument with her father and they start to speak Spanish (Martens & Povoa, 2017). However, considering the social setting, it makes perfect sense that Laurel would speak her native language with her family, it would not make sense for her to speak Spanish in the middle of cases with the rest of main non-Spanish speaking cast. It is this ordinariness that Martens and Povoa take issue with especially in relation to a scene with Annalise (Davis’ character) and her mother, where her mother combs her hair in an emotionally charged scene (Martens & Povoa, 2017). Furthermore, Danielle Henderson argues that the scenes were “so familiar, and something I’ve never seen before on TV . . . How to Get Away with Murder is so good at showing these small slices of Black culture,” (Martens & Povoa, 2017; Henderson, 2015). However, looking at Henderson’s initial article she praises this move, which showcases two older, dark-skinned African-American women with no makeup and their natural hair, whereas Martens and Povoa use her comments to frame a negative criticism of the scene (Henderson, 2015).

The last qualm they have with HTGAWM is when race becomes an issue in a court case surrounding a black man who has been falsely accused of murdering his girlfriend and is currently on death row. They argue that the episode addresses the gentrification and racial discrimination in the housing market within the context of an illegal incident, which in turn results in them neglecting the issues of structural racism and racial bias in American court proceedings (Martens & Povoa, 2017). However, we must take a step back and look at the purpose of the show, which is to entertain, it is a televised drama series. The premise of the show alludes to the political nature of United States law and court proceedings and it does touch on these matters. The crucial word being, touch, the show has no obligations to outrightly be political because it is a dramatized television series. The criticisms the show faces are like that of the recent Hollywood blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians, which faced criticisms of not representing all Asians and not being political enough, yet that is not the purpose of these projects (Cleo Yap, 2018; Ngyuen Scaife, 2018). They are television dramas and romantic comedies, their purpose is not to be political, yet they choose to acknowledge the racial politics that exist for minorities.

In conclusion, the casting process is fundamental in representing minorities on screen, but like the Academy Awards, the problem lies higher up in the hierarchy. It is the responsibility of filmmakers like Ridley Scott, the ones with power in the production process to fight harder for minority representation and nurture new talent in order to have marketable actors. The positive effects of creators using their power to fight for diversity can be seen in Shonda Rhimes’ productions that include extremely diverse casts behind the globally successful television series. Her method of colour-blind casting is a revolutionary move in a world, where white was viewed as the norm and the risks, she took to work against the system has paid off for her and for minority actors hoping to break on to the scene. However, it is not without its faults, as seen with the potential effects of erasing race too much, but it is a better alternative than accepting Hollywood’s norm of casting white actors when the race is unspecified. Finally, the act of whitewashing and its justifications that minority-led productions do not result in financial success is no longer valid with worldwide successes such as Black Panther. With the consumers and the acting community becoming much more vocal on the lack of representation in Hollywood, it is now Hollywood’s time to make the change.

#OscarsSoWhite: The Importance of Industry Recognition


#OscarsSoWhite: The Importance of Industry Recognition

With the emergence of Twitter campaign #OscarsSoWhite, a response to the all-white acting nominations at the 2015 Academy Awards, it is important to address the complexities and controversies surrounding diversity within the awarding bodies, especially, when they struggle to represent the ethnic makeup of the American population. This essay will demonstrate the importance that awarding bodies have in recognising diversity in the American film industry, largely through the example of the Academy Awards. The data used by this chapter and the following chapters will focus on the years 2015 to 2018, specifically in relation to this chapter, analysing the ethnic and racial makeup of nominations and wins, as well as that of the voters. Lastly, through analyse of the debates and responses from actors and filmmakers, this chapter will aim to establish where the responsibility lies for making Hollywood diverse, whether this is with the awarding bodies or if this goes further into the film industry.

Before analysing Oscars diversity and the OscarsSoWhite campaign, we must look at how the Academy is structured and the voting process that allows members to join. The first process is how the Academy selects its members. This occurs through a method of sponsorship, where existing members of the branch that the individual wishes to join must sponsor the individual and they must have demonstrated “exceptional achievement in the field of theatrical motion pictures,” (Franklin, 2018). This process, however, becomes problematic for ensuring ethnically diverse board representative of the American population, when you look at the existing makeup of the board. For example, prior to the 2016 shakeup which led to 46% of women and 41% of the members being people of colour, the Academy was 91% white and 75% male (Boram Chattoo, 2018:369-370). It is possible that this could affect a diverse cinematic experience in the sense that the individuals choosing the films are more likely to invite those like them in terms of race and gender. Furthermore, it cultivates a culture of exclusivity due to the brief once a year window to join the Academy (Franklin, 2018).

As noted above the exclusivity of the Academy membership and the overwhelmingly white board members has a significant impact on the types of films and actors they deem as ‘best,’ and unfortunately, comes with the implied notion that race has become a characteristic of this. This is demonstrated in the nominations from 2015-2016, which showed for two years in a row that no singular actor of colour was nominated for the coveted award (Variety Staff, 2015; Donnelly, 2016). This is surprising when you consider other awarding ceremonies that take place over the year, which celebrate these actors. For example, as David Cox for The Guardian notes that in 2016 numerous black male actors were snubbed of nominations including Will Smith for Concussion and Michael B. Jordan for Creed, who were all equally worthy of an Academy nomination, but tended to succeed in African-American centred award shows (Cox, 2016; IMDb, 2019).

Moreover, the people and types of films we choose to celebrate at these lavish awards ceremonies has an impact on the types of people and stories we value in society. Boram Chattoo explains Mary McNamara’s views, when she says that  “when we praise and reward certain stories or images, whether by big box office or gold statutory, we reveal what we as a society, the kind of people we find interesting, the characteristics we revere and revile,” (Boram Chattoo, 2018:373; McNamara, 2016). This highlights the wider implications of lack of representation because by not recognising minority actors and minority-led films in awards shows like the Oscars, we as a society, are saying that we do not value these kinds of people in society as much as their white counterparts and that their stories are not as important or interesting.

The diversity problem within Hollywood is a complex one. Representation is improving with the Best Supporting Actress category becoming one of the most diverse Oscar categories of late with half the winners over the past ten years coming from a minority background (Zak, 2016). However, there is a diversity problem within a diversity problem, as Dan Zak of The Washington Post, demonstrates through the example of Hispanic and African-American acting nominations. For example, black actor nominations tend to be dominated by Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, as they account for 25% of all nominations for black actors from 1987. Similarly, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem dominate the Hispanic nominations (Zak, 2016). Furthermore, the black minority tends to do well relative to their population, but other minorities do not. For example, only 3% of Latinos are represented onscreen relative to their population of 16% and it is much bleaker for Asian Americans who are represented in a mere 1% of films in comparison to consisting of 16% of the U.S. population (Cox, 2016). These figures illustrate a minority hierarchy within the film industry in terms of who is shown on screen.

Minority racial and ethnic groups are behind in the race for these accolades. This is demonstrated in the 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report, which notes that in 2015 only 9.1% of Oscar-winning films featured a person of colour lead and the likelihood of winning an Oscar  with a majority-minority cast was 17.6% in 2016, which was largely due to the success of a singular production Moonlight (Hunt, et al., 2018). This whiteout in 2015 sparked backlash within the film industry from actors to the filmmakers leading to former lawyer April Reign, coining the hashtag OscarsSoWhite. Reign explained the meaning behind the movement, as one which refers to the marginalised communities when looking at the staffing of films from the actors to the sound operators (Reign, 2018; Nsiah-Buadi, 2018).

Analyses from 2015-2018 show that in the first two years the significant whiteout occurred, but there was an improvement from 2017-2018 with Mahershala Ali winning Best Actor with Dev Patel nominated alongside him and Moonlight winning Best Picture in 2017 (Variety Staff, 2015; Donnelly, 2016; Guardian film, 2017). 2018 ushered in a significant change with two non-white supporting actress nominations, Mary J. Blige became the first African-American woman to receive multiple nominations in the same year, Jordan Peele secured Best Original Screenplay for Get Out – a film that tackles the issue of race in present-day America in the horror genre and the best actor category featuring two non-white actors (Berkowitz, 2018; Guardian film, 2018). Yet, this is not as promising as it looks, with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer becoming the most nominated black actresses further adding to the issue raised by Dan Zak and one which will be discussed in further chapters surrounding the dominance of a few bankable, successful black actors (Berkowitz, 2018; Zak, 2016).
The outrage at this whiteout was vocalised by members of the film industry from both minority and white members alike. As Keith Merill, an Oscar winner himself said “it’s completely ridiculous to bring in ethnicity to the evaluation of creative performances and filmmaking and acting, we’re supposed to be evaluating talent in categories, and one of those categories is ‘what is their ethnicity?’ to make it one of the categories is ridiculous,” (Cieply, 2016). Rightly so, ethnicity should not be a category and it is not a named one, but an unspoken category that exists way beyond the academy awards and into the casting and production processes of film and television. Merill’s statement raises important questions around discrimination in the awarding process, which becomes particularly interesting given the context of OscarsSoWhite, does the Academy need to employ positive discrimination? And will positive discrimination devalue the standard of performance for the acting awards in favour of racial representation?

A further concern that is raised out of the OscarsSoWhite surrounds job opportunities. This paper focuses on the Academy Awards because they are pivotal for setting the standard on who is the best of the best in the industry. They also shape the types of films and projects that get made, and who they get made by. As Boram Chattoo notes, just to have your name shortlisted is extremely significant in job prospects for film professionals who have to seek out funding for their future projects (Boram Chattoo, 2018:376). This is reiterated by Stephanie Allain (Producer of Beyond the Lights), who in the light of OscarsSoWhite, acknowledges the significance of the Academy Awards, but that the minority filmmakers and actors “just need jobs. That’s how we’re really going to solve the problem,” (Cieply, 2016). Allain’s statements really point to the root of the problem, which is because of the lack of job opportunities these minority actors and filmmakers do not have the chance to be recognised by the Academy because the material is not out there.

The Academy immediately responded to these concerns by announcing changes to the voting requirements, recruitment process and structure of the Academy. A special meeting of the governing board took place in January 2016, in which they reached a unanimous vote to endorse these new processes, but changes to balloting was deferred (Cieply, 2016). The Academy aims to double the number of female and minority members by 2020 (Cieply, 2016). So, looking on from 2016, with the latest data from 2018, has the Academy changed? The Academy sent out invitations in June 2018, and according to the invitations will result in the new governing body comprising of 38% people of colour increasing their representation by 13% to 16% since 2017 (Khatchatourian, 2018). This marks significant change since the 2015 awards and shows that the Academy is acting on the words to increase diversity. This looks promising for a much more diverse awards ceremony, with a new class of voters weighing in on 2019 nominees and has reduced the exclusivity of the Academy (Sheehan, 2018).

As much as there were supporters of the OscarsSoWhite movement, the critics also exist, one of the most notable was Charlotte Rampling’s response. In an interview on a French radio station Rampling claims that OscarsSoWhite is in fact “racist towards whites,” and that “black actors did not merit being on the finishing line,” (Furness & Mulholland, 2016). But, what Rampling neglects to acknowledge is that this is not a fair race for minority actors alongside their white colleagues. Only 15% of lead roles go to minority actors, they are outnumbered 2:1 among directors, 3:1 in the writing room and the studio bosses are 94% white (Cox, 2016). These figures not only emphasise the obstacles that exist for minority actors to even reach an equal starting point but also highlights that this problem is just as much an industry problem because, without the actors in the roles, the Academy cannot reward them.

Despite the Academy making changes to their voting structures and members, the filmmaking industry has a lot to catch up on. As queer Korean-American filmmaker, Andrew Ahn was told that he would find it easier to receive funding if his story had a white character, but as Ahn outlines that would not make sense to the plot because he was telling the story of the Korean immigrant community (Youngs, 2017). Furthermore, Maya Solis the manager for Native American and Indigenous programme at the Sundance Institute emphasises the problem is not that there is not an audience for minority-led films, in particular, Native American films, but that the majority of roles are written for white actors depriving non-white actors of the ability to succeed in their careers. She acknowledges that the Oscars are not the whole problem, but that they do not have the ability to create and share their stories (Youngs, 2017). When you have films with box office takings like over $140 million dollars in a comedy film led by four black women (Girls Trip) breaking the summer top ten in a dismal film season and Coco, an animated film focused on a Mexican boy and his family heritage outperformed superhero ‘blockbuster’ Justice League for three weekends at the box office (Reign, 2018). This demonstrates that films featuring minorities and their stories are successful, they are interesting to the public and they do sell.

Finally, did the Academy’s changes make any difference? The 91st Academy Awards was a marker for diversity and inclusion with the 2019 nominations becoming the most diverse selection, yet (Abad-Santos, 2019). Five of the nine of the Best Picture nominations were stories about minorities with BlacKkKlansman, Black Panther and Green Book focused on African-Americans, Bohemian Rhapsody – the biopic of Freddie Mercury, who was of Indian heritage and bisexual and finally, Roma a foreign language film about domestic workers in 1970s Mexico (Obenson, 2019; Solsman, 2019). The nominations do in fact, seem to reflect the notion that increasing diversity amongst the board, also increased diversity in the nominations. However, that conclusion is too simplistic, when viewer ratings of the ceremony at an all-time low the previous year, it is possible that diversity among the 2019 nominees is a push towards a ratings boost (Obenson, 2019). This possibility is supported by the 2015 Nielsen report which found that the more diverse the major-category nominations are, the larger audience the ceremony will draw in (Obenson, 2019).
It is also worth considering the topics of these films and why they were chosen. Steven Thrasher makes some very interesting arguments concerning the selections of BlacKkKlansman, Black Panther and Green Book’s nominations arguing that the racial politics of these films are “quietly conservative,” and thus, why they were revered at the awards (Thrasher, 2019).  This notion is supported by Meredith Clark, who argues that Oscar voters love to award feel-good films about racism with white protagonists instead of films that address the horrors of racism (Clark, 2019). Thrasher’s analysis of Green Book fits the bill of Clark’s arguments, as the film is supposed to tell the story of Don Shirley, a gay African-American pianist but instead becomes the story of his white driver Tony Vallelonga and is “a white savior movie at its most crude and unimaginative,” (Thrasher, 2019). The film then went on to secure Best Picture highlighting that the Academy may be increasing the visibility of diversity in their awards, but the stories they are choosing are still racially conservative. This view becomes much more interesting considering Clark’s observations on Get Out the previous year (Clark, 2019). Clark cites The Hollywood Reporter’s annual interview with an anonymous Oscar voter, who in 2018 felt pressured to support Get Out, accusing the filmmakers of playing “the race card” by pointing out racism is still a problem (Clark, 2019; Feinberg, 2018)

However, from this year’s anonymous Oscar vote interviews there seems to be a wave of change, with one voter denouncing Green Book as “retrograde and borderline offensive with all the clichés,” (Feinberg, 2019). Moreover, it is worth drawing from Merill’s statements earlier on and the nature of positive discrimination. Is the Academy’s recognition for films like Bohemian Rhapsody, which was branded mediocre and Green Book, as offensive by critics, are they just examples of positive discrimination to appease diversity campaigners? (Obenson, 2019; Feinberg, 2019) Finally, it is worth noting despite an increase in diversity, the lead actor and actress categories remain overwhelmingly white with only one person nominated in each of the lead acting categories (Obenson, 2019). However, this is not just an academy problem of a lack of recognition, it also points to a larger problem of casting and job opportunities for actors of colour.
To summarise, this chapter has drawn attention to the Academy Awards because of the importance that recognition has on societal views on who we see as our heroes, who we view as the best of the best and what stories are important in film. The OscarsSoWhite campaign drew attention to the diversity problem in Hollywood and shook the Academy into reform, which they have acted on by diversifying membership. But what this essay has also shown is that the problem of diversity within Hollywood film is so much more complex and the responsibility is not just on the shoulders of the Academy, but upon the industry and the individuals in charge of choosing which stories to finance and allocating roles to actors.

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