Oscars Diversity Controversy
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

In 2015, America’s age-old struggle over civil rights centered on police violence. Gunshots too often killed unarmed black citizens — and the African-American population exploded with indignation, no longer willing to abide the status quo.

This year, the nation’s battle over identity and inclusion has found a new focus: Hollywood. The tipping point arrived with the Jan. 14 unveiling of Oscar nominees, a list as white as the Social Register, circa 1950. The announcement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences — revealing that every one of the 20 acting nominees was white, incredibly, for the second consecutive year — has filled the Twitterverse and cable talk shows with outrage, plunging the Academy into crisis. The lack of diversity has dominated the conversation, from the executive suites at Disney to the hallways of CAA.

The 89-year-old motion picture academy is absorbing the brunt of the public disdain. But the fault lies not just in the star-making Oscars, many agreed, but in ourselves. The Hollywood studio hierarchy remains an exclusive club chaired by white men and one white woman. The big talent agencies have almost no minority partners. And the media that cover it all — Variety included — employ only a few people of color.

Illustration by Daniel Zender for Variety

The Academy Board of Governors met in an emergency session on Jan. 21 to tamp down the uproar before Oscar’s big night on Feb. 28. The group’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, unveiled immediate reforms designed to double the number of women and non-whites in the organization by 2020. Boone Isaacs also announced the Academy would cull from its membership those who have not worked in 10 years, and promised to diversify the overwhelmingly white Board of Governors. Of 51 governors, only Boone Isaacs, an African American, and one other are members of racial minority groups.

“The Academy is going to lead,” Boone Isaacs assured, “and not wait for the industry to catch up.”

But many inside Hollywood concurred that, for the latest furor to provoke real change, more than a rewriting of Academy bylaws would be required.

“Diversity does not just happen,” said L.A. Film Festival chief Stephanie Allain, a producer of movies such as “Hustle & Flow,” and a former high-level executive at Columbia Pictures. “You have to have the intention to make it happen. You have to talk about it. And then you have to walk the walk.”

Allain, who is African-American, has instructed her festival staff to find not only great films, but ones made by women and minority directors. The result? Thirty-five percent of the movies at last year’s L.A. fest were helmed by people of color, and 40% by women.

“Why don’t we do a trial of five years throughout the industry, of hiring those (minority) writers, developing those artists, hiring those executives and see what happens?” said Allain, who along with “Selma” director Ava DuVernay and costume designer Ruth E. Carter, both African American, lost bids to white incumbents last year to become Academy governors. “People want to see themselves up on that screen,” Allain said. “If you believe in it and understand it, you know diversity can mean bigger results at the box office, too.”

So, what are the heads of Hollywood’s six major studios saying about the lack of diversity in their executive ranks and in the content they produce? Three of the six — five of whom are white and all but one of whom are male — agreed to a request by Variety to speak on the record about the industry’s diversity problem.

“There’s no question that this is an important issue and deserves respect, attention and response,” said Alan Horn, Walt Disney Studios chairman. “We must continue working with filmmakers and creatives who understand we need to tell inclusive stories that are reflective of the audiences coming to our movies.” Horn, who joined Disney after heading Warner Bros. for 12 years, added, “We need to have a diverse workforce, reflecting the diversity in society, and we’re working toward that.”

“The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up.”
Cheryl Boone Isaacs

Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman Jim Gianopulos said that while his studio is proud of the strong gender equality in its workforce — all of its production division heads are women, and there is additional diversity throughout the executive ranks ­— it’s incumbent upon management to push harder.

“That’s not enough. We need to continue to diversify our workforce, and as to film, it’s more than the right thing to do to make movies that reflect our audiences, culture and community. There’s more to do.”

Gianopulos stressed that diversity efforts need to start early, at “the other end of the process,” with studios working with cinematic educational institutions like the Ghetto Film School, a non-profit bicoastal program designed to encourage “tomorrow’s next generation of great filmmakers.”

Brad Grey, chairman of Paramount Pictures, also acknowledged the need for studios to double down on their diversity efforts.

“Over the years, our studio has had a longstanding legacy of working with a distinguished group of diverse artists and filmmakers, but we certainly recognize much more needs to be done,” said Grey. “As content creators,” he added, “embracing and promoting diversity, equality and inclusion always has been and will be core to our foundation.”

Hollywood’s top four talent agencies — CAA, WME, ICM and UTA — each gave Variety information about minority recruitment efforts and their earnest commitment to diversity. But not a single leader from any of those agencies would agree to an interview by Variety.

DIFFERENT STRATEGIES: Oscar host Chris Rock aims to use satire to examine the diversity issue; Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have called for a boycott of the awards; Spike Lee is among those who’s said he won’t attend. AP Photo/Andres Kudacki

The heads of the major talent guilds, DGA, SAG, WGA and PGA, also declined to comment. The DGA was the only guild to put out a statement, on Monday, acknowledging, “It is time to be clear — structural changes are needed.”

None of the agencies, studios or broadcast and cable TV networks contacted would provide Variety with stats on the demographic makeup of their workforces.
Only streaming services Netflix and Amazon obliged.

Social Media Campaign

Filmmaker and provocateur Spike Lee got the diversity debate started, bemoaning “#OscarsSoWhite … Again” on Instagram, and saying he and his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, would bypass the awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre because of the shutout of minorities in the acting categories. Lee noted that there’s not much “flava” in the rest of the Oscar lineup, either.

In putting out the stay-away marker — soon seconded by Jada Pinkett Smith and husband Will Smith — Lee pointed at the awards disparity at hand. But he made it clear the entertainment industry’s exclusionary culture runs much deeper.

THE ACADEMY BY THE NUMBERS: A 2012 study by the Los Angeles Times found that nearly 94% of voting members were white. Of 51 governors, only 2 are minorities.

“As I see it, the Academy Awards is not where the ‘real’ battle is,” wrote the maker of “Chi-Raq.” “It’s in the executive office of the Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks. This is where the gatekeepers decide what gets made and what gets jettisoned. … This is what’s important. Those with ‘the green light’ vote.”

Almost all the voices against the Oscar white-out have been African-Americans. And, yes acclaimed black artists, in films like “Straight Outta Compton,” “Creed,” “Beasts of No Nation” and “Concussion,” went unrecognized. But where were Latinos among the nominees? And what about Asian-American talent? How could many categories, notably for technical achievement, exclude women almost entirely?

It would be a “pigment of the imagination” — as Archie Bunker once liked to say — to believe that the diversity challenge emerged suddenly in 2016, whether within the Academy or the business at large.

RACE/ETHNICITY IN THE 100 TOP FILMS OF 2014
These percentages have not changed since 2007.

Source: USC Annenberg’s Media Diversity & Social Change Initiative, “Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014”

But the Oscars always reflect the industry, and the history of Hollywood is largely one of white men. In the 88 years of Academy Awards, there have been 433 nominations for director. Only three have gone to African-Americans, or less than 1%. Seven noms have been given to Latinos (including the three recently to Alejandro G. Inarritu, most recently for “The Revenant”); six to Asians (with half of those nabbed by Ang Lee) and four to women. Combined, all of these acknowledgments account for less than 5% of the total nominees.

The picture in the cinematography category is similarly monochromatic, with 589 films nominated, and only 22 nominations going to non-whites — a total that would be considerably more paltry were it not for the 10 earned by the late Chinese-American cinematographer James Wong Howe. A woman has never been nominated for the cinematography prize.

This is to say nothing of other groups such as Native Americans and the disabled, who are also under-represented compared with their numbers in the country’s population.

There are at least 56 million Americans with disabilities, noted Deborah Calla, chair of two diversity groups within the Producers Guild of America, “but it’s the minority that nobody talks about.” Said Alex Nogales, president-CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition: “Latino actors should be standing up and saying, ‘We’re being excluded; there’s no balance.’ We need to be much more assertive. We need our artists to be bullish about this.”

Race/Ethnicity in the 100 Top Films of 2014
These percentages have not changed since 2007.
26.9% Percentage of films with characters from an underrepresented race/ethnicity
40+ Films with no speaking roles for Asians
17 Films with no speaking roles for blacks
17 Films with a lead/co-lead actor from an underrepresented race/ethnicity

Suhad Obeidi, director of the Hollywood bureau of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, noted that there are 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, but they are invisible in most major-studio films. (She might have added: unless it’s to be portrayed as the heavies in jingoistic plotlines.) “If the lack of recognition is still happening to communities who have been working in the industry for decades, what does it say to the Muslim community?” she added. “We need to join efforts with all under-served communities. … Diversity shouldn’t be (optional).”

The reason for the imbalance is no mystery, given who makes and appears in most films and who votes for the Oscars. A 2012 Los Angeles Times investigation found that 94% of Academy voters were white, and 77% were men. Despite a subsequent recruiting drive and more intensive efforts to include minorities, led by Boone Isaacs, the percentage of whites remained stubbornly high: pegged at 93% two years later. The Academy has never confirmed or refuted the percentages, and the exact ethnic breakdown remains a closely kept secret by the 6,300-member organization.

A Sorry History

Hollywood has been under fire from the under-represented since at least the 1970s. One of the biggest Oscar protests came 20 years ago, when Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition balked at nominations for the 1996 ceremony, which included just one African-American out of 166 nominees (Dianne Houston in the live-action short category).

As the Hispanic Coalition’s Nogales said: “The term ‘people of color’ now usually refers to African-Americans. But I am a person of color, and I want to be included. Studios are 90% white and 90% male. But people of color represent 40% of the population. Hollywood decision-makers should be ashamed of themselves. Are they going to continue to ignore us? If so, they will eventually see us stop going to movies.”

The drive for urgent change is not shared, though, by everyone in the industry. Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling, up for her leading role in “45 Years,” said it might be “racist to whites” to insist the Oscar noms needed more people of color. “Perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final list,” said the 69-year-old British actress. She later told CBS News, “I regret that my comments could have been misinterpreted.”

It wasn’t only whites questioning the diversity furor. Actress and Fox News commentator Stacey Dash, who is black, called an Oscar boycott “ludicrous,” suggesting that industry members should never be singled out by their racial identity. John Singleton, Oscar-nominated director of “Boyz n the Hood,” expressed only muted concern. “The demographics of America and this business are changing,” he opined. “The Academy’s going to evolve. So I’m not really worried about it.”

Despite the pledge by Lee and the Smiths to shun the Oscars, a full-blown boycott seemed, at least in the first week, to gain little momentum. Lee appeared on PBS’ “Charlie Rose” talk show, and clarified that he never intended to force his opt-out on others.

Another crucial figure, Chris Rock, is still committed to hosting the Oscar telecast, despite calls by some African-American performers, including actor Tyrese Gibson, to bail out.

A FAMILIAR ISSUE:Jesse Jackson marches with Sunny Skyhawk in a 1996 Rainbow Coalition protest over the 68th Oscars, which included just one black nominee, for live-action short. FREDERICK M. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Sources close to the telecast said that Rock and Oscar producer Reginald Hudlin, who is also black, would approach the show like any comedy gig — pulling no punches.

Ultimately, the greatest agents of change within the industry likely will be those who don’t plead for a piece of the pie, but rather help bake pies of their own. Individuals like multihyphenate Tyler Perry, insisting on an ownership stake in their work, advance not only their own interests, but those of other people of color whom they put on the payroll. (Perry declined a request to be interviewed for this story.)

Charles King, one of only a handful of African-Americans to make partner at a major agency (WME), last year founded his own company, Macro, to finance entertainment projects for multicultural audiences. When the Oscar noms were unveiled, Macro issued a statement on social media. “This highlights the need for more financiers and media companies, like Macro, that are laser-focused on the new majority,” it read, in part. King also declined to give an interview, preferring to stick by Macro’s statement.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose brother Ari co-heads WME, has embraced the adage, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste,” urging activists to make strategic advances in the face of emergencies. Producer Allain echoed those words in the wake of the Oscar crisis.

“The beauty of it is that the Academy is very visible, and it is a reflection of what is happening in the rest of the business,” she said. “How could we engage on the issue of systemic under-representation, without some marker. … The conversation is happening, which is fantastic.”

Justin Kroll, Todd Spangler, Debra Birnbaum, Cynthia Littleton, Dave McNary and Ted Johnson contributed to this report.

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