Yes, Oscars Are a Little Less White — but Hollywood Still Has a Lot of Work to Do

Oscars Diversity
Courtesy of A24/ESPN Films

It hit Jharrel Jerome like a punch to the gut. In 2016, for the second year running, performers of color had been shut out of the Oscars. The Latino college student was a novice actor with only a few professional credits, and for him, the message was personal.

“It was definitely rough, and it was definitely an uncomfortable feeling,” he recalls. “It was the industry that I wanted to go into and be a part of the rest of my life. It almost felt as though the work I would put in would not matter. It was shocking we didn’t get a foot in the door.”

This year’s crop of Academy Awards nominees tells a different story than the one that wounded Jerome and others — the films and performances being honored form a much more inclusive tapestry. The stories selected as among the season’s best are ones that deal explicitly with race in America, such as “Hidden Figures,” “Fences,” and “Moonlight,” which features Jerome in a powerful performance as a bisexual high-schooler. Moreover, for only the second time in history, seven of the 20 acting nominees are performers of color. In other categories, black directors and producers like
Barry Jenkins and Kimberly Steward have been short-listed for top awards. The onslaught of acclaimed projects and star turns has given some people in Hollywood hope that the movie business is turning a corner toward a future where films about African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, women, and LGBTQ people are embraced, supported, and encouraged.

“This year could be something different,” says Jerome. “This could be a big change.”

Yet despite the optimism, Hollywood has an enormous amount of ground to make up and work to do to bring creative and financial equality and inclusion to what remains a white male-dominated business.

“I don’t think there should be praise [for the number of minority nominees]; I think there should be an understanding that this should have happened and that this should have been happening for many years,” says Aldis Hodge, an actor who has appeared in “Hidden Figures” and “Straight Outta Compton.” “I don’t want to sound negative, but this is something that — in terms of recognition — this should be a normalcy. Inclusion should always be a normalcy because the contributions do not come in one color in the industry.”

Moreover, due to the long lead time of a production, this year’s more diverse slate of nominations was more a function of the movie calendar’s release schedule than of the social media admonishment that sprung up in response to the lack of inclusion in recent awards seasons.

Ezra Edelman, the director of “O.J.: Made in America,” is one of four black directors nominated in the documentary category. He’s pleased that Oscar voters are receptive to these movies, but he thinks it’s premature to ascribe such progress to a larger shift in the culture.

“It’s dangerous to talk about trends,” he says. “Who knows what this means one way or the other. It’s a great thing, and sure, it makes me hopeful, but in some ways it’s a coincidence that we all made films that are nominated this same year.”

Beyond the Oscars, there’s much work to be done to foster change in the industry. Just over 5% of the 1,000 highest-grossing films of the past 10 years were made by black directors, and only 3% were shot by Asian filmmakers, according to a recent study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative. Last year, even as the number of high-profile films about racial issues rose, the number of opportunities afforded to female directors shriveled. Women comprised just 7% of all directors working on the 250 highest-grossing domestic releases in 2016, a decline of two percentage points from the level achieved in 2015, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

“It’s dangerous to talk about trends.But in some ways it’s a coincidence that we all made films that are nominated this same year.”
Ezra edelman

In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow shattered a glass ceiling, becoming the first woman to win best director, for “The Hurt Locker.” Since that time, no other women have even received a nomination.

“The bottom line is that women aren’t going to be nominated if they’re not in the game,” says Martha Lauzen, director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. “If they’re not working in significant numbers, that lowers their chances of being recognized.”

The executive suites of major studios and their corporate parent companies are still dominated by white men. None of the six biggest studios have minorities at the helm, and only two of the six, Fox and Universal, have women with greenlight authority. The films these media giants produce are, by and large, similarly monochromatic.

“Nothing will be more reflective of a wider change until we have more ownership,” says Mario Van Peebles, the director and star of “New Jack City” and “Baadasssss!” “If you don’t have more ownership, you’re a guest.”

Van Peebles says he’d like to see more black artists move from directing to producing to ultimately pooling their resources to create their own companies.

“We need to start a conglomerate,” he says. “We need to start getting together. If they can make money from us, we can make money from us.”

Even if artists don’t seize the moral moment, more mercenary concerns could shake up the landscape. There are hopes that the box office success of “Hidden Figures” and “Fences” will make executives feel more confident in backing films made by African-Americans about the experience of being black in America. Still, some prejudices die hard.

“You hear things all the time in the industry about ‘Black doesn’t sell in foreign markets,’ and you’re like, ‘What? Let me see the data,’” says Misha Green, co-creator of WGN America’s “Underground,” a historical drama about the Underground Railroad. “But you’re keeping the data, so you guys can keep saying things.”

There are grassroots reasons why those long-held beliefs may soon be swept into history’s dustbin. After the social media movement #OscarSoWhite sprang up last year in reaction to the lack of nominees of color, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that hands out the awards, committed to overhauling its membership. The organization set a goal of doubling the diversity of its membership by 2020. This year, 46% of the 683 new members it invited to join were female, and 41% were people of color. It’s a sign that the Academy is making attempts at being less exclusive. But for some, those steps, and the surge in acting nominees, are a belated acknowledgement that voters didn’t reflect a changing world.

There are signs that major studios are taking steps. Disney, for instance, employed no black directors for the biggest films it released over the past decade. Yet the studio has tried to make changes, hiring Ryan Coogler, the African-American director behind “Creed,” to oversee “Black Panther,” the first major studio comic-book movie with a black protagonist. Likewise, the company is backing “A Wrinkle in Time,” a big-budget fantasy-adventure from “Selma” director Ava DuVernay.

On the streaming side of the business, there are more opportunities for women and people of color and a greater willingness to offer stories that have been largely ignored by the mainstream media. Two years ago, Netflix reached out to Susan Cartsonis, producer of “What Women Want” and “The Duff,” to see if she was working on projects related to female empowerment. The result of the collaboration, “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train,” was directed by Sydney Freeland, a Native American transgender woman, and features two biracial leads. It premiered to acclaim at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and will be available on Netflix next month.

“Going in, I had it in my head that it would be about a white family, but that changed when they said they’d be open to anybody of any gender or race to play any role,” Cartsonis says. “That told me there’s an openness from the top of Netflix in making movies that break the old model, and it says to me that they have data that lets them know there is an audience for movies with diverse leads.”

Some artists are moving beyond the studio system to try to inculcate a love for film among a rising multicultural generation. Tarell Alvin McCraney, the co-writer of “Moonlight,” says he’s working with Jenkins, the film’s director and screenwriter, to provide film equipment to the community center in the impoverished part of Miami where they both grew up.

“We want to get people started earlier,” McCraney says. “Hopefully that will make sure that we continue to have stories that come out of these corners of the world.”