Friday, August 2, 2019

#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 clich├ęs,” (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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