Hollywood is messing up. As we approach the whitest Academy Awards in years, it’s worth considering that the film industry’s lack of attention to diversity is helping to push it to an uncomfortably archaic place. The majority white male Academy members continue to venerate other white men while our best minority and female artists are finding work in the most plebeian of places—television. And I use plebeian here in its most honest sense; TV has never been more reflective of our commonality than it is now, largely because it’s a medium that allows us to see stories that span the diversity of our collective experience.
Television is really kicking the movie industry’s ass in terms of how well it’s adapting to its audience. It helps that people like ABC entertainment chief Paul Lee have made a commitment to diversifying programming, saying, “If you look at shows now that seem to lack diversity, they actually feel dated because America doesn’t look like that anymore” and greenlighting shows like Black-ish,Cristela, and Fresh Off the Boat this past season. But three shows in a sea of hundreds don’t change the tide, and it’s worth noting that by contrast, some networks are only getting whiter.
The success of Fox’s Empire (the number 2 show on TV with a record-breaking five weeks of consecutive audience growth) along with the sheer dominance of producer Shonda Rhimes’ Thursday night ABC lineup (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and How to Get Away With Murder) reveals the truth in the Nielsen report that African-Americans watch more TV than any other group, but we’re not the only group watching those shows. The way television looks is changing, but it still has a long way to go.
Part of the problem with bringing diversity to the screen, both large and small, is that people tend to think minority culture is monolithic. We push the notion of diversity as long as it stays within the boundaries of what white culture already knows about the stereotypes of minority culture. Thugs, hijabs, and the ever-present strong black women are touchstones of identity, but they're not everything. Cookie acting crazy on Empire and beating Hakeem with a broom is funny because it’s just good television, but in terms of respectability politics it means something different to black people than it does to white people. As Shadow and Act’s Shannon Houston points out, Cookie is the smartest character on the show even though she's just done a long stint in jail and wears tight, revealing clothes, forcing us to reevaluate and “double-check that side-eye we cast upon its characters, and to investigate our own conscious or subconscious internalizations of black respectability politics.” And that’s the real triumph of shows like Black-ish, Empire, the CW’s Jane the Virgin, and the Shonda Rhimes’ Three Hour Tower of Power—they give us cultural touchstones without giving us cultural parodies.
But racial and cultural diversity in mass-market major studio-supported films seems to have stalled out. For every familiar version of historical black struggle in movies like The Butler (2,933 screens, grossed over $116 million) and The Help (3,014 screens, grossed over $169 million) that gets a wide release, smaller and more nuanced portraits of life as a person of color get critical acclaim but less support, like Pariah (24 screens, grossed $769,000) and Girlhood (5 screens, grossed $30,000). Selma director Ava DuVernay talked about the importance of seeing more stories from people of color, and how weird it is that hers was the only movie featuring people of color even in the running for an Oscar.
“Folks see films, see history, see art, see life through their own lens,” Ms. DuVernay said. “And when there’s a consensus that has to be made by a certain group, you know, the consensus is most likely going to be through a specific lens. And unless there’s diversity amongst the people that are trying to come to the consensus, then, you know, there will be a lack of diversity in what the consensus is, if that makes sense.”
“Why was Selma the only film that was even in the running with people of color for the award?” she questioned. “I mean, why are there not — not just black, brown people? You know what I mean? Asian people, indigenous people, representations that are more than just one voice, just one face, just one gaze? So, for me, it’s much less about the awards and the accolades, because, literally, next year no one cares.”
Part of the problem is that for many, diversity is still a buzzword when it should be an institutionalized policy. There doesn't seem to be a system of checks and balances that holds anyone in the industry accountable for ensuring the sort of whitewashing we're seeing at the Academy Awards doesn't happen, or that a movie about Egyptian gods doesn't feature an entirely by a white cast (except for the slaves, of course). A simple Racial Sensitivity 101 course might even prevent the directors of those movies from saying that movies without an entirely white cast won't get financed. If that's true, why didn't this raise any alarms? There's been a diversity and compliance officer at every job I've ever had, so I find it hard to believe that studios don't have access to them. Does affirmative action even matter in Hollywood, or have they just gone rogue? Occasional diversity means nothing without long-term intent and a sustainable foundation to keep it running.
There will be some brown faces on stage at the Oscars this year; although there aren’t any people of color nominated in acting categories, the Academy has tapped Selma‘s David Oyelowo, former nominee Viola Davis, comedian Kevin Hart, actress Zoe Saldana, former Best Supporting Actress winner Octavia Spencer, Oprah Winfrey (who produced and appears in Selma), Kerry Washington, and Lupita Nyong’o (last year’s Best Supporting Actress) to be presenters. But what happens after that? With an Academy voter base that is 72% male and 90% white, down 4 percent, from last year, we might see some voting parity in 300 years. Kyle Buchanan of Vulture noted that this “white guy problem” is systemic, citing the complicated relationship between big studios and the Sundance Film Festival:
But it is indicative of the way that major studios tend to approach Sundance: They swoop in, pluck up all the white-guy directors, and leave all the talented female and nonwhite helmers to fend for themselves. If you’re a white dude who made a micro-budget Sundance movie with some visual panache, you’re sure to end up on studio short lists; if you’re not, you’ll struggle to even get financing for your next project.
Hollywood is fucking up, and there needs to be policy change. Diversity doesn’t ruin integrity. Some bigots operate under the delusion that allowing women and people of color into an organization means you’ll instantly support any ol’ project featuring a woman or person of color. The work still has to be good. But the work can only get good with training, education, support, and networking, roads that seem to be consistently blocked for minorities. How many people of color are enrolled in screenwriting programs? Are agents and managers, who rarely post their contact information, actively looking for representative voices, and helping people develop scripts and produce short films or reels? And for fuck’s sake, can we please get some non-white, non-misogynist, well-rounded Academy voters who can be bothered to even watch movies?
It’s not even like the industry has nothing to lose. This summer saw abysmal numbers for most movies as people across the country decided they’d rather sit in a pool of their own sweat than see another movie based on a board game they played when they were toddlers, and only had an upswing in the fall when they started producing movies for adults again. Rentrak analyst Paul Dergarabedian said, “The autumn has shown that older audiences still love going to the movies,” as though he was discovering some magical creature that lives under his porch, which makes me feel like no one in the movie industry even knows what’s happening in the world right now.
One bright spot is in the field of animation. After a big push in the ’90s to rectify the colorless landscape, animated films still feature a healthy amount of diversity, both in how the characters are drawn and the actors doing the voices. Dean DeBlois, the writer and director of How To Train Your Dragon 2, said:
Today, a visitor to a major animation studio will see men and women of every ethnic background going about their work. “At Disney and especially at DreamWorks, they seem to go out of their way to find international talent,” says DeBlois. “I think there’s a recognition that animation travels the globe and affects people of all countries and all cultures. There’s a universal quality to the films that we make: They cross borders and take us to lands that we might know little about.”
Maybe the industry should revisit this page from their own book.
Danielle Henderson is a lapsed academic, heavy metal karaoke machine, and culture editor at Fusion. She enjoys thinking about how race, gender, and sexuality shape our cultural narratives, but not in a boring way.