When the Oscar nominations unveiled last year, one hashtag arose above all others: #OscarsSoWhite, a response to the fact that for the second year in a row, all acting nominees, lead and supporting, male and female, were as white as a jar of mayonnaise.
What followed was a national debate about diversity and representation in Hollywood. Many spoke out, including then-President Barack Obama. A select few, like Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, decided to boycott the Oscars altogether. For those who are interested, this article provides a nice detailed summary of events.
The main takeaway, though, is this: thanks to #OscarsSoWhite, members of the film and TV industry vowed to devote more time, attention, and effort to diversifying Hollywood’s ranks. Were they successful?
If you go by the award shows this year, no, not really. After reviewing the nominees for the BAFTAs, SAGs, Golden Globes, and Oscars, specific patterns start to emerge.
In the lead actor and actress categories, five out of five of nominees (minus one, if any) are white. To take this one step further, the lone lead actor or actress nominee of color rarely wins, except for Denzel Washington, who won at the SAGs for “Fences.”
The supporting actor and actress categories, in both film and TV, tend to have one, two, or sometimes three out of five nominees of color. Occasionally one of them, typically Viola Davis, even wins – but to reiterate, they win for their roles as supporting actor and actress.
Viola Davis and the other winners of color, I am sure, did an incredible job in their respective films. But this particular pattern feeds into the narrative that POC can’t be more than the best friend, never the hero, and personally, that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
In terms of TV actors and actresses, there are also typically more nominations of men and women of color. However, they tend to not win the actual award, minus Tracee Ellen Ross for “Black-ish” and Donald Glover for “Atlanta.” In terms of the ensemble awards? You might see one or two shows whose cast is primarily people of color. Maybe.
The reason why I say award shows are still #SoWhite is because once the Hollywood elites choose their small handful of nominees of color, typically only those of black ethnicity, that’s it. Nobody else who’s a person of color can be nominated.
For example, the Oscars can nominate both Octavia Spencer, a black woman, and Jessica Chastain, a white woman, for their work in “The Help,” but not Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson, another black woman, for their work in “Hidden Figures.” “Moonlight,” the only movie who has a cast consisting entirely of people of color, can’t have more than Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali nominated in the best supporting categories, but “American Hustle” can have their primarily white cast as nominees in all four acting categories.
Let’s further compare “Hidden Figures,” a movie whose leading characters are played by people of color, with “Hacksaw Ridge,” a movie whose leading characters are not. Both of them are historical dramas. Both came out within a month of each other in late 2016. Both made similar profits in the box office – “Hidden Figures” so far has earned $171 million worldwide, “Hacksaw Ridge” has earned $174 million worldwide. Both were critically acclaimed, “Hidden Figures” especially for its groundbreaking, major cultural impact.
When it comes to nominations, though, something seems rather disproportionate. The Academy Awards have nominated “Hacksaw Ridge” for best picture, best director, best actor, best sound editing, best sound mixing, and best film editing, with all categories consisting of white men. The Golden Globes nominated it for three awards: best motion picture — drama, best actor — motion picture drama, and best director. The BAFTAs threw five nominations its way, and the SAGs threw two.
Meanwhile, you have “Hidden Figures” nominated for Oscars in three categories: best adapted screenplay, best picture, and best supporting actress. The first two nominees, if they win, will not go to recipients of color: the director, screenwriter, and producers (minus Pharrell Williams) are all white. Completely ignored by the BAFTAs, “Hidden Figures” only received two Golden Globes and two SAGs nominations.
“Hidden Figures” is “Hacksaw Ridge”’s equal, but you wouldn’t know if you looked at only how many nominations they received. This problem isn’t limited to just “Hidden Figures,” though, especially when it comes to people who work in production. Nominees for best director this season tend to be the same five white men, aside from the Golden Globes and the Oscars giving Barry Jenkins, director of “Moonlight,” a singular nod. To reiterate, five out of five nominees, sometimes four out of five nominees, are white men.
If you go on to look at the BAFTAs and the Oscars specifically, which honors behind-the-scenes work as well as on screen, the same goes for cinematography, editing, music, production design, visual effects, etc., all of which are just as key to making a film as the actors are. Most of the nominees for behind the scenes work are white males. Overwhelmingly so.
That in and of itself is troubling, simply because people of color, men and women, have the actual experiences needed to create good, realistic representations of themselves on screen.
As much as we can complain about how the award shows played out this year, how much they haven’t really changed, that’s not the real issue here. In fact, the award shows are just a mere symptom of a much more toxic and complicated disease: racism in Hollywood, and the lack of opportunities that people of color — especially women of color — get as a result.
Despite being 50 percent of the population, women only played 29 percent of the lead roles in 2016. People applaud this because it was up 7 percent from 2015, but that’s still an incredibly low number. Not to mention, one could also raise the question of how well-written these female characters were, or were not. I bring this question up because the number of women in general speaking roles went down from last year to 32 percent.
Out of this 29 percent, though, it is not directly specified how many of them are women of color. If the general statistics are anything to go by, then one can assume that there were very few female leads of color. While any roles for Asian women doubled in number and black women increased as well, it was only up to 6 percent and 14 percent, respectively. When we look at Latina characters, it is even more disheartening — the number of roles going down from 4 percent to 3 percent. Nobody thought to look into data surrounding American Indian roles, possibly because there weren’t any.
As we saw in award show nominations, things worsen when you look at behind-the-scenes workers in Hollywood. Women comprise only 17 percent of all writers, directors, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2016. Again, this does not account for women of color.
In general, though, male or female, people of color never seem to be the lead. According to a study conducted by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, 2013 was the peak year for leads of color, with 16.7 percent making up those roles. In 2014 and 2015, this percentage actually declined to 12.9 percent and 13.6 percent respectively. While the study did not have any data for 2016, it can be inferred that there was not a dramatic increase. Just because there was more recognition of films with people of color does not mean that there were more of them as a whole.
What can we do to fix the problem? It might seem impossible. After all, white people created Hollywood, for white people. And unless there is significant social pressure, that is not likely to change. Which is why we must apply that pressure. We must show them that there is a demand for more diverse movies, that they can make just as much money and get just as many accolades as traditional Hollywood movies.
After all, if the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite hadn’t been created, mainstream awareness wouldn’t have been brought to this situation in the first place. “Moonlight” wouldn’t have gotten as popular as it did if social media and the rest of the internet hadn’t spread the word. If we remain vigilant and show Hollywood through our wallets and praises that diversity indeed is valued, we may see more varied and representative movies made.