Diversity Insights From the #OscarsSoWhite Controversy

The winners have been named, the Oscar statuettes already enshrined in their recipients’ homes, yet the #OscarsSoWhite controversy remains in the spotlight. Certainly, the declared winners deserved their wins, but there are also deserving actors and actresses of color, such as Idris Elba, Michael B. Jordan, Viola Davis, Queen Latifah, and more.

Because it has been the second year in a row that no black nominees for the top acting categories were named this year, conversations on diversity in Hollywood have risen again, propelled by #OscarsSoWhite 2016.

3 Key Takeaways From This Year’s #OscarsSoWhite Controversy:

Diversity in Hollywood Matters

“…when everyone’s story is told, then that makes for better art. It makes for better entertainment. It makes everybody feel part of one American family…” – part of what President Obama said when he spoke on the diversity issue surrounding #OscarsSoWhite.

Diversity Is Inclusion

Diversity is best understood through the prism of inclusion. Inclusion is about making everyone feel that they belong, that they are as important as the rest of the members, and that they have equally important contributions to make.

Through the prism of inclusion, no one views oneself as superior or inferior to others – each one is unique and valuable. Each individual may differ in many ways from another, but all are equal just the same.

Inclusion is diversity in action. It is inviting everyone to the table. It’s recognizing the special talents each one has and letting each partake of their share in the pie.

The fact that the voice of protest was heard again after the Oscar nominations were announced – this year as it was last year – shows Hollywood talents of color recognized and felt the injustice of being left out in the cold. Rightly so.

Actors and actresses of color are artists, not mere entertainers, so they deserve due recognition and honor for excellence in their craft. So do BIPOC and women talents working behind-the-scene jobs in Hollywood.

Contributing Factors to #OscarsSoWhite

The #OscarsSoWhite controversy is mainly attributed to the Academy’s membership profile, which is largely Caucasian and male.  According to a recent report by The Atlantic, Academy members with voting rights are 93% white and 76% male. To some extent, the 

#OscarsSoWhite is also seen as a result of Hollywood’s notorious lack of diversity:

“Another problem for decision-makers is to view diversity from the limited periscope of compliance. Not enough organizations take the next essential steps of creating a work environment that promotes inclusion in all its variations.” (Dupress)

The role of racial bias cannot be discounted as well. According to a New York Times article,  “even if, in our slow thinking, we work to avoid discrimination, it can easily creep into our fast thinking. Our snap judgments rely on all the associations we have…”

This was echoed by Alejandro G. Inarritu, who won as best director for The Revenant: “We are still dragging those prejudices and tribal thinking at this time. It seems absolutely absurd.” (ABCNews)

Best Approach: An Inclusive Attitude

Thinking in terms of inclusion should help avoid a reprise of #OscarsSoWhite. But an inclusive attitude needs more conscious and sincere efforts –  individually and collectively –  to develop; otherwise, it will only be reduced to the level of just words, with no forward action done.

New measures can be adopted to counter the myriad challenges to film industry diversity, such as the steps the current Academy president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, is taking. But unless film people in authority with money and power move to tip the scale towards greater inclusion before and behind the cameras, the same old problem will persist. #OscarsSoWhite will make a comeback.

Diversity Means Creating Job Opportunities for Underrepresented Sectors

Film-making is about more than creating entertainment. It is about creating jobs and equal opportunities, and there is much leeway for movie producers, talent scouts, casting directors and others involve in the hiring process to reach out more to minorities and women with passion, skills, and great potential. 

The Occupational Outlook Handbook projects an employment growth of 10% from 2014 to 2024 for film acting jobs. This growth will arise from a continued strong demand for new movies and television shows.

The OOH likewise projects a 9% job growth for producers and directors in the motion picture and video industry for the next 10 years, stemming from strong demand from the public for more movies and television shows, as well as an increased demand from foreign audiences for U.S.-produced films.

Executives and agents believe color-blind casting must trickle down to up-and-coming stars to create more opportunities for minority actors. “In film, as opposed to TV, you’re chasing names a lot,” says one producer. “We need to create more names now.” (Hollywood Reporter)

Diversity Involves Creating an Inclusive Pipeline of Talents

UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies conducted a study in 2014 and found minorities and women are underrepresented in influential positions in the film industry at rates far below their percentage in the general population.

One significant finding of the study involves talent agencies, which are said to be “not representing the underrepresented.” There is a tendency for top agencies to fill up their talent rosters with whites.

The study also found that greater diversity in TV and film productions actually increases viewers, resulting in higher profits for studios and networks.

With continued strong demand from the viewing public for more films and TV shows, and with the rapidly growing diversity of the American population, calls for greater diversity will grow stronger, more imperative, and more urgent than ever.

Speaking of the Oscar Awards show, one article noted: 

When the show host lays an egg, audiences turn off; when they haven’t seen the movies, they turn off; when they see no faces of colour, they turn off. And if they’re young and computer-oriented, they don’t turn on in the first place. They hear about it on Twitter instead. (Sidney Morning Herald)

Diversity Talks Can Include Race Without Making It an Issue

Diversity is a sensitive, contentious, and divisive topic for many reasons. One element that makes it so is race, which is an issue for many. Yet, diversity conversations can include race without making it an issue.

Just like in filmmaking. A story can be made up of diverse racial characters, of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders, or of women, without focusing too much on the negative side. Diversity can be presented as a normal thing. As one article observes about TV serial shows, which perform much better than film in terms of portraying diversity and inclusion of minorities and women in the casts:

…while shows such as Orange Is the New Black and Transparent put gender and sexual identity front and centre, in The Walking Dead “minority” traits are rarely the thing that define characters; being African American or gay is a part of a character’s identity, but never the most important thing. Diversity, in other words, is normalised. (Sidney Morning Herald)

Films as Powerful Vehicles of Diversity and Social Change

Films exert a strong impact on the viewing public, especially films with social relevance. Studies show they impact the minds and hearts of the young far more than can be imagined.

Thus, films are powerful and influential vehicles of social awareness and change. Here is an excerpt on the effect of films on viewers:

Advances in neuroscientific understanding have shown that “the brain is more hard-wired for sociability, for engaging with others, and for empathy than we had realized,” said Kramer. “The brain developed as a visual-auditory sensory processing system, which, when you think about it, is what film does.” A film is successful to the degree that it connects to the audience emotionally, said Guttentag. “Story and character are the two most important elements for helping people connect with a film.” Libresco agreed, adding that the elements of good story making include “great characters, each of whose lives has an arc; the layering of multiple stories; beautiful cinematography; and the ability to make audiences cry and laugh.” (Harvard Gazette)

Films with a diversity of real-life themes and with the inclusion of actors and actresses reflecting the true face of the American population can go a long way in helping erase embedded prejudices, biases, and stereotypes.

Increasing diversity in Hollywood, in all aspects, and in nominating deserving artists and entertainers for the Oscars is a daunting task but a doable one. Two years in a row is bad enough for an #OscarsSoWhite, and the third time could spell doom.