Even though winning an Oscar is seen as the ultimate, career-defining award for anyone in film, the Academy Awards seem to only celebrate the successes of certain groups. Namely, films centered around straight white males. This has created a distinct lack of recognition for diverse stories that has persisted throughout the ceremony’s long and prestigious 88-year history.
It seemed like this year’s Academy Award ceremony was just going to continue down this path, but even though many of the major awards still did not favour women or people of colour, people in the industry actually started talking about the issue and potential ways to fix it. Much of this impressive change is credited to host Chris Rock, an African-American actor who chose to spend the majority of his opening monologue addressing the lack of diversity in Hollywood with additional segments scattered throughout the whole show. This made it clear to anyone who was watching: Hollywood may not see the problem, but people of minorities are done with sitting back and watching it happen.
One explanation for the lack of diversity in award winners might be that the Academy members like to honour filmmakers who are similar to themselves, and to support those making the same kind of films. If their formula was successful once, surely the next person’s attempt will be too. This could be the reason that only one female has ever won the Academy Award for Best Director, and it took until 2009 for it to happen. Kathyrn Bigelow finally broke through the Oscar glass ceiling after three nominations to Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola, but no woman has been nominated in the six years since then. It gets worse in the more technical categories, with no woman ever having been nominated for Best Cinematography, let alone won.
The situation is perhaps better with the acting awards, as there are built-in categories for women. However, this year marked the second year in a row that all 20 nominees across the four acting categories were white. Lupita Nyong’o’s 2014 win for Best Actress in a Supporting Role might have been considered a turning point at the time, but 40 out of 40 nominations since then have gone to white actors. Despite cries from the film industry that there simply weren’t enough films that featured strong displays of acting from people of colour (coupled with the usual argument of quality over quota), it cannot be ignored that there were people of colour in the running who somehow fell over at that final hurdle. Such actors this year include Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson for Creed (yet Sylvester Stallone still garnered a nomination), Idris Elba and Abraham Attah for Beasts of No Nation and Will Smith for Concussion. And in 88 years, 86 winners of Best Director have been white with the exception of Alejandro González Iñárritu in the past two years.
This is not a freak occurrence. Just last year, David Oyelowo starred in Ava DuVernay’s Selma as Martin Luther King and was not recognised in the Best Actor category. The film itself, despite being highly critically acclaimed and holding a 99 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, only garnered two Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Song. This is even more disappointing when you consider the traditional success of historical films at the Academy Awards, such as The King’s Speech (2010, four awards for Best Picture, Director, Actor in a Leading Role and Original Screenplay) and Schindler’s List (1994, seven awards for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Film Editing, Cinematography and Art Direction). Yet when the story being told is one of a person of colour, it becomes much easier to slip by unnoticed.
Another possible explanation might be the argument of quality above all. As the idea of a ‘best film’ is perhaps quite subjective, it has been easy for the Academy to claim that they are not favouring certain groups, but have simply done their job and chosen the best films. And of course there are going to be occasional years where certain trends within film mean that there are less stories about these minorities or the best films just happen to feature white people. But the problem is not that the ignorance of minorities has been a recent freak occurrence. The problem is that it has been happening for the entirety of the history of film, as highlighted by the last 88 years.
However, it’s clear that the diversity problem as seen at the Academy Awards is merely a microcosm of Hollywood itself. It’s not entirely the Academy’s fault for failing to celebrate minority films when they are not even being made in the first place. A recent report from the New York Film Academy on “Gender Inequality in Film” revealed some startling facts about the way women and people of colour were represented in the top 500 films from 2007-2012. Only 30.8 per cent of speaking characters were women and only 10.7 per cent featured a balanced cast where half of the characters were female. This is despite the fact that women account for half the cinema ticket sales in the US. It’s not that women are not watching these films – they’re just not in them. Additionally, the Forbes 2013 list proved that the gender pay gap still exists in film as well, since the top 10 highest paid male actors earned a collective $465 million compared to the top 10 highest paid female actors who earned $181 million. Not only are there less jobs for women, but they are being paid less even if they manage to get one.
To me, it seems very straightforward that people of the recreated onscreen world should accurately represent people of the real world. The US is 51 per cent female and 36.3 per cent people of colour, yet these groups rarely get a chance to see their stories be told.
The issue of representation is important because you cannot be what you cannot see. Minorities also should feel like they can be the hero of a quest, that their voice will be heard and that their story will be told. An examination of the roles of those actors of colour who have won an Oscar shows the types of careers associated with people of colour: a slave, army private, detective, former boxer, dictator, abusive mother, singer and maid. Not exactly a varied or inspiring line-up. Sam Esmail, now the creator of Golden Globe-winning Mr. Robot reflected on this issue; “Growing up, I [thought] white male was the norm, the default character in every story. I never thought other possibilities could exist.”
What we need is a new generation of filmmakers dedicated to telling these stories. Thankfully, this is starting to happen as discussion around this issue increases. A recent breakthrough was the lead cast of the new Star Wars film, directed by JJ Abrams, where the main trio consisted of a female actor (Daisy Ridley), a Nigerian actor (John Boyega) and a Guatemalan actor (Oscar Isaac). Abrams said of this, “It was really important to me […] that we make this movie look more the way the world looks than not and that we didn’t write any character to look a certain way. We didn’t know that Finn would be black or that Poe would be a Latino actor. We just – we knew we wanted this movie to feel inclusive. And I’m really happy that kids of colour and girls can see that there isn’t a place where they’re not important, where they’re not valued and needed, and it was exciting to do that in the Star Wars universe.” It’s very exciting to see such a major franchise take a step in the right direction and hopefully it means that others will follow.
Australia appears to be making efforts to combat this problem too following Screen Australia’s recent report “Gender Matters: Women in the Australian Screen Industry” which features a three-year plan to help address gender imbalance in film. The plan is not without substance either, featuring five specific initiatives with $5 million of funding in place. These include the Women’s Story Fund, where female-driven projects can apply for funding, and Enterprise Women, another grant system for those dedicated to creating business and industry infrastructure to support women.
It is time for the silver screen to accurately reflect our world as it is because everyone’s story deserves to be told. Hopefully as the film industry has now begun to recognise the issue of diversity on screen, they will continue to take steps to improve it and we can celebrate all stories, not just the ones chosen by straight white men.
Julia Faragher is a current university student with a passion for writing across all mediums, from novels and short stories to films, plays and poetry. Her adventure with writing began in November 2011, when she competed in National Novel Writing Month for the first time. Three years later, she had written three novels of more than 50,000 words each and fallen in love with writing. Since then, she has also had success writing in other areas, such as co-writing a play that won her high school competition and placing in the top 4 of last year’s ANU Interhall Poetry Slam. She also has a love for film, and served as the director, producer and writer for Dear Jasmine, winner of ‘Best Student Film’ at the Lights! Canberra! Action! Film Festival 2015. Other festival credits include Tropfest Jr, the All-American High School Film Festival and the Screen It Festival. She currently studies English, Gender Studies and Law at ANU and runs her own short film company, Skybound Productions.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.