Holzer: Hollywood So White

Don’t blame the Academy for the lack of diversity in film.

by Emory Holzer | 2/18/20 2:10am

Put complaints of an overlong ceremony, political speeches by out-of-touch celebrities and awards predictability aside. Today, the most significant issue with the Oscars is the lack of diversity.

The solution, however, does not come through continued criticism of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The problem actually lies with Hollywood and the stories it chooses to fund — not which films the Academy decides to recognize.

The nominees for the 2015 Oscars were announced to public outcry; there was not a single nonwhite acting nominee. When the same problem recurred in 2016, the Academy, fueled by activist April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign, made significant internal changes. It launched efforts to recruit diverse talent for Academy membership in order to reach its goals of doubling female and nonwhite representation in the voting body.

These efforts proved at least somewhat successful, driving members of color from 8 percent to 16 percent and increasing the proportion of women from 25 percent to 32 percent. Of course, things are not perfect, but the Academy has made its intentions clear: the Academy’s leadership, led by President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, is dedicated to honoring quality filmmaking that portrays a wealth of diverse identities and perspectives.

Nevertheless, the controversy and the #OscarsSoWhite movement have hardly quieted. If the Feb. 9 Academy Awards proved anything, though, it is that attacks should not be targeted at the Academy. While things did not look promising — Cynthia Erivo was the only person of color nominated for an Oscar in acting, and no female directors were nominated — the night ended up a positive one for representation.

If you want proof that the Academy values diversity in film, look at the winners from this year’s ceremony. “Parasite,” the first South Korean feature film ever nominated for an Academy award, dominated the night, winning best picture and best original screenplay. Director Bong Joon-ho took home the award for best director. The film became the first non-English language film to win best picture. 

Today’s Academy has clearly shown a desire to award movies that portray diverse perspectives. From awarding best picture to “Moonlight” — an LGBTQ film with an all-black cast — over the industry darling “La La Land”; to including “Black Panther,” “BlacKkKlansman” and “Roma” in the 2019 nominees for best picture; to awarding this year’s highest honor to a subtitled film without any American actors, the Academy has been eager to recognize filmmaking at the highest level that also expands representation in film. This does not mean that the Academy’s efforts to increase diversity are complete. But it does indicate that the Academy is willing and able to shift to a more inclusive and representative body. Continuing along the current path will unquestionably lead to recognition more of more “firsts” in film.

The #OscarsSoWhite campaign shifts the target toward the Academy and away from where it should be set: Hollywood itself. #OscarsSoWhite holds the award-giving body accountable for a lack of diversity in the broader movie industry. But while the Academy has made efforts to recognize diversity, movie studios haven’t done so to nearly the same degree. In 2019, roughly 70 percent of the top 200 English-language films by global box office had predominantly white casts. Looking to a Hollywood Reporter article that made early projections for the 2020 Oscar race, 28 out of 40 films — or 70 percent — listed as having a shot at a nomination for best picture had all-white casts. Of the ultimate nominees, just two of nine movies — “Parasite” and “Little Women” — depicted stories not centered around white men, meaning that non-diverse films made up 78 percent of the nominees. 

These numbers form a single line: the amount of diverse filmmaking, the number of those movies that are recognized by critics and the ultimate number nominated for Best Picture are all around the same. The problem isn’t the Academy. The problem starts with the production of films themselves and propagates upward. The onus is on movie studios to green-light more projects that focus on diverse perspectives and experiences. For more diverse filmmaking to be recognized, more diverse films must be produced.

Aside from a lack of racial diversity, another glaring problem for the film industry is the absence of women nominated for best director. But when one looks at the data, that problem also originates in Hollywood. In 2019, less than 10 percent of films were directed by women. Not only is it unfair to hold the Academy responsible for this problem, but it is also unproductive. Criticism must be targeted at studios, which are the source of the issue. Directing criticism toward film studios might convince them to hire more female directors and give more women and people of color the resources to create critically-acclaimed films.

The Academy has set itself on the right course. It remains to be seen if Hollywood will do the same.