The 2018 Academy Awards approach just as the conversation surrounding diversity in Hollywood is at its loudest. Movements such as “Oscars So White” and “Time’s Up” have thrown the spotlight on the problem of Hollywood’s lack of representation when it comes to the presence and roles of women and people of colour in the industry, but the question of whether or not any substantive change has occurred remains unanswered.
Despite the post-Weinstein outcry about the marginalisation of women in the media industry, the Golden Globes failed to nominate a single female candidate for Best Director. The awards ceremony has been running for 74 years, yet it has taken until 2018 for Sterling K. Brown to become the first Black actor to win the Best Actor – TV Drama award, and Aziz Ansari to become the first Asian actor to win the Best Actor – TV Comedy award.
In the 90 year history of the Oscars, only one Hispanic person, five black people, and two Asian people have won either Best Actor or Actress. In the Supporting Actor/Actress Categories, ten black people, four Hispanic people, and two Asian people have won.
However, realistically the issues we see in the discrepancy of acting awards for people of colour is only the tip of the iceberg in Hollywood’s diversity problem.The disparity that exists in “behind-the-scenes” categories is even more shocking: only two black people have ever won screenwriting awards – no Asian or Hispanic people have ever won – and shockingly no black people have ever been awarded with Best Director.
Alfonso Cuarón and Ang Lee are the only Hispanic and Asian people respectively to have won this title, whilst Kathryn Bigelow remains the only woman. This year marks the first time ever that a woman has even been nominated for Best Cinematography.
It may be difficult to comprehend why exactly the extreme disparity in the film production process is so harmful – after all, acting awards typically get the most attention in the common eye, and definitely represent the most visible facet of Hollywood. But it is within these ideas about “visibility” that the real problems lie. It becomes easy for studios to sidestep criticisms surrounding a lack of diversity by inserting one or two “token minority” characters in visible positions, leading to a series of common stereotypes into which women or people of colour are inserted: the black sidekick, the nerdy Asian, the undeveloped female love interest. And even when actors receive awards, the roles they’ve been given often only contribute to these stereotypes.
Of the eight black women to win Oscars in acting categories, three played slaves or servants. Typically, films with black casts are only considered “Oscar bait” when they revolve around a slavery narrative, as with 12 Years a Slave or Django Unchained. Notable exceptions to this rule come when the films in question are helmed by Black directors – Selma (dir. Ava Du Vernay), Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins) and Get Out ( dir. J ordan Peele).
We can see this same disparity between female characters directed by women and those that have been directed by men.
A recent interview with Uma Thurman revealed how poorly treated she was working on Kill Bill under Quentin Tarantino, while French director Abdellatif Kechiche was notoriously exploitative of actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos when they filmed intimate scenes for his Palme d’Or-winning Blue is the Warmest Colour. The film, despite being refreshing in its depiction of a lesbian relationship, was accused of relying too heavily on the male gaze.
Director Zack Snyder came under fire for his overt sexualisation of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman character in DC’s new Justice League film – who had been hailed as a groundbreaking female role when in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman a few months before.
For diversity to become a fundamental point of a change in the way the film industry is run rather than a buzzword that producers attempt to capitalise upon by implementing token changes, women and people of colour need to have control of the creative process.
However, providing minority voices with the opportunity to have creative control isn’t enough to substantiate industry-wide change. For studios, films are products, and products must be sold.
It’s an often-quoted excuse: that movies about women or minorities are too niche, not appealing to a broad enough audience, that they just won’t sell. But Wonder Woman, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Beauty & the Beast all rank among the top ten highest grossing films of 2017, and all are led by female protagonists, proving that when the opportunity is provided, female-led films can and will perform.
The same goes for films revolving around people of colour: Black Panther is already smashing box office records; Girls Trip, Straight Outta Compton and Hidden Figures were similarly all met with great financial success.
But it’s still too early to declare that tide has turned in favour of diverse cinema when such releases are still considered “risks”, or are met with outcries from cinemagoers declaring that such diversity is only being included to “appeal to liberals” or to appear politically correct.
Film is after all a form of art, and whilst sales figures are difficult to argue with, naysayers can easily debase the value of diverse movies by claiming that they are subpar in terms of artistry, or that they have only hired women or people of colour as part of a an elaborate advertising gimmick, rather than because the people themselves are actually talented.
And this is where the importance of awards shows comes in – art may be subjective, but for a film to win an Oscar, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, or any such respected award, is for that film to receive tangible evidence of its worth and importance as a work of art.
For diversity in the film industry to have any meaning, it must progress to a point beyond where it can simply be labelled a trend or a political statement and become the norm. It must progress to the point where diverse films can be viewed and judged primarily as films, and rewarding the efforts of female filmmakers and filmmakers of colours affords them a legitimacy as artists rather than just as activists.
That’s not to say the importance of films as political statements and tools through which to affect cultural shifts ought to be diminished, but by the same token, women and minority filmmakers have the right to create and be appreciated as artists.
The idea of creative genius is not exclusive to the realm of white men, but the history of Hollywood’s major awards ceremonies seems skewed that way nonetheless. Nobody thinks The Wolf of Wall Street or Saving Private Ryan are “white, male” films – they are films, their value as contributions to the cultural zeitgeist aren’t called into question because of who made them.
They have a neutrality surrounding them, because in the film industry like in so many other facets of society, to be white or male is accepted as normal, and to be outside of what is normal is to be judged as a statement on identity politics before being considered as art.
As the 2018 Oscars approach, there comes another chance for the work of women and people of colour to be judged and legitimised meritocratically. Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig, Guillermo del Toro, Dee Rees, Rachel Morrison are just a few nominees at the most prestigious awards ceremony in the industry.
They’ve achieved their nominations by being masters of their craft, and I hope that at least a few of them receive the coveted golden statuette so that the world must acknowledge the talent and value of the stories that they all so skillfully helped tell.