Hollywood Needs to Sustain Its Diversity/Inclusion Progress

Chloe Zhao Variety Day After The Oscars Cover Story
Andrew Eccles for Variety

Activists have been trying for years to make Hollywood more inclusive. Recent evidence indicates success.

At the April 25 Academy Awards, Chloé Zhao won as director for “Nomadland,” the second woman to win and the eighth time in nine years that the director trophy was not given to a Caucasian male.

For 2018 movies, three of the four acting winners were POC: Rami Malek, Mahershala Ali and Regina King. The following year, Asians won in four Oscar categories, including best picture, with Korean-language “Parasite.”

But will it last? One theory says progress is linear, that once we take a step forward, we will never go back. Another theory says progress is cyclical. Using Oscar as a gauge, Hollywood is much better now at representing the world population. And building on that success is so important that backsliding is not an option.

Hollywood is much better now at representing the world population. But it might be cyclical.

Signs of inclusion in the 2021 Oscar contenders include multiple films centering on Black protags, such as “Bruised,” “The Harder They Fall,” “King Richard,” “Passing” and “Respect.”

Latinos/Hispanics are represented in “Being the Ricardos,” “Jockey,” “No Time to Die” (via the scene-stealing Ana de Armas), “Parallel Mothers” and “West Side Story.” “CODA” puts deaf protagonists at center stage. LGBT characters are central in films including “Benedetta,” “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” “The Power of the Dog” and “Swan Song” (the Todd Stephens film starring Udo Kier).

Mission accomplished? Maybe.

On June 29, 2015, Variety printed a report on marriage equality and the Supreme Court. In an interview, RuPaul warned, “Everything’s cyclical. These windows of openness are literally that: They open and they close. During the disco era, we thought ‘Oh my God, this is great; we’re going to be like this forever!’ Think again. It shut down so fast people’s heads were spinning.”

Hollywood history is filled with breakthrough moments followed by regression into past habits.

Past milestones include Harold Russell in the 1946 “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Forty years later, Marlee Matlin — a contender this year for “CODA” — made her film debut in “Children of a Lesser God.” Both of them won Oscars. Since Hollywood loves to emulate success, where were the repeats of these wins?

Although it took a while for any meaningful followup, in the last few years, Hollywood has seen the success when Asian, Black, Latin, disabled and others formerly marginalized people create and star in productions, like deaf actors Millicent Simmonds and Lauren Ridloff, who starred in “A Quiet Place” and “Eternals,” respectively.

Here’s a brief overview of Hollywood’s one-step-forward/one-step-back history.

In the “Our Gang” film shorts, 1922-44, the group of kids included Blacks and whites, years before Sidney Poitier made his Hollywood impact.

The 1969 best picture winner “Midnight Cowboy” covered a wide spectrum of sexuality and genders. “Little Big Man” (1970) featured Robert Little Star, playing Little Horse, a member of the Cheyenne tribe who was a Two-Spirit/trans (and thus considered on a higher plane for having both genders).

The fact-based “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) concerns a man (Al Pacino) who robs a bank to pay for the sex-change operation of his lover; the 1992 “The Crying Game” centers on a gender-fluid love affair.

All of these films made an impact, but none of them started a trend; the enlightened attitude fizzled out, for a number of reasons. Now, there are brilliant creators who want to make sure that the reawakened outlook will last and that the biz never backslides.

If you find these anecdotes inspiring, great. But if you find them discouraging, remember the words of Ava DuVernay. In a November 2018 Variety interview about criminal justice reform, she said, “To be hopeless is to disregard history. If you have a feeling of hopelessness now, then my goodness, you need to build your emotional muscles! … This is not the worst we’ve seen, even in our lifetimes.”