Oscars Are Taking A Step in the Right Direction: More Work Still Needed to Increase Diversity in film



Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae at a press confrence for “Hidden Figures.” The movie is the highest grossing film of 2016.

After two years of disappointing and insensitive award shows, the Academy Awards has finally responded to the overwhelming criticism about the lack of diversity in their nominations. However, a full year after the #oscarsowhite campaign, representation in Hollywood still has a long way to go.
2016 was a great year for representation in cinema. Movies like “Hidden Figures” broke box office records weekend after weekend, while stories like “Moonlight” captured the hearts of both America and the Academy. Animated films about racism and female empowerment, like “Zootopia” and “Moana,” enticed entire families. For the first time in years, a person of color is nominated in every single acting category at the Academy Awards, a stark contrast to last year, which included no people of color nominated in any acting categories.
In addition, the Academy has since made an effort to celebrate diversity behind the camera. For the first time in Oscar history, three non-white writers, Barry Jenkins, August Wilson and Tarell Alvin McCraney, were nominated for best screenplay. Joi Mcmillon became the first black woman to be nominated in the editing category for her work on “Moonlight,” while Bradford Young became the second black creator to be nominated in the cinematography category for his work on “Arrival.”
Both celebrities and activists alike have celebrated the diverse Oscar nominations. However, many other people still don’t understand why it is so important that Hollywood celebrates more diverse people and stories in the first place.
One of the major criticisms of last years #oscarsowhite campaign was that celebrities and activists alike hadn’t put enough effort into far more urgent and necessary humanitarian causes than the Oscars. After all, does anyone really care about award shows when there are far bigger issues to worry about?
The answer is yes: millions of little boys and girls around the world care. This is why representation is so important.
Historically, minorities have been represented horrendously on TV, in the news, and in most professions, particularly academically-focused ones. Asian people are often portrayed as the white protagonists’ nerdy and socially awkward friend; storylines centered on women rely heavily on the presence of a male; and black and Hispanic people are portrayed as thugs and prisoners. If we perpetuate these stereotypes, in real life, people will live what they’re told to be true. Life imitates art.
We have a responsibility to all the boys and girls watching to celebrate diverse stories, and that we reward a diverse group of actors. Imagine the millions of young black girls around the world watching the true story of black women excelling at math and working at NASA. Imagine the awe on young South Asian boys faces when they see Dev Patel accept an Oscar in front of millions of people.
Representation matters because by telling these particular stories and showing these people in a positive light, the boundaries set by harmful stereotypes are erased. Yes, black women can put an astronaut on the moon. Yes, Polynesian girls can save an entire island. Yes, young boys from South Asia can travel the world in search of their family using modern technology. Representation matters.
In fact, representation is not only vital to how someone sees their own selves, but also how we see each other. It is human nature to have internal biases about outside groups of people. Film has the ability to introduce us to people we have never met and shape our opinion of them completely.
According to author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” her move from Africa to America for college brought on certain challenges because people had this preconceived notion of what African people were like. On the first day of college, Adichie’s roommate asked her to play her tribal music, even though she only had Mariah Carey on her iPod.
A single story shapes the assumptions and stereotypes we have about a person. If Hollywood continues to tell the same type of stories about the same type of people, these people will only be seen in a shallow, limited lense.
In the past, the Oscars have been known to only award movies about the black experience that centered around slavery and segregation, such as “12 Years a Slave” and “The Help.” However, this single story is outdated, and no longer the reality of so many black people today. By awarding films such as “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures” and “Fences,” the Academy is not just awarding a single story, but rather all different types of people living all different types of lives. True diversity lies in the stories being told, and this year, in the spirit of “Fences,” the Oscars knocked it out of the park.
Unfortunately, the Academy’s new found celebration of diversity is not representative of Hollywood as a whole.
According to The Center for Study of Women in Television and Film, women only account for 13 percent of writers, 13 percent of directors and 9 percent of cinematographers.
According to a 2012 Los Angeles Times study, 94 percent of Oscar voters are white and 77 percent are male. Black and Latino people make up less than 4 percent of the academy.
Although, these numbers may have improved slightly since the studies were taken, the Academy Award Nominations do reflect them relatively well. No women were nominated for directing, and no Hispanic actors or Middle Eastern actors were nominated in a major acting category either. Only one Asian actor, Dev Patel, was nominated for a major acting role. Clearly, as far as we’ve gone, we have even farther to go.
This is the root of the Oscars diversity problem. The Academy Awards are representative of the year’s best cinema, and they cannot nominate or award diversity if the films of that year do not themselves represent diversity. The movies of 2016 have officially debunked the myth that films centering on the stories of marginalized groups are not marketable, yet the opportunity to tell their story is still rarely afforded. Hollywood has to continue to buy scripts from women and people of color, and they have to continue to tell their stories.
Whether or not the Academy Awards represent a societal shift or not, one thing is clear; In the words of Academy Award winning Actress Viola Davis, “[one] cannot win an [award] for roles that are simply not there.”