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Hollywood’s diversity problem goes beyond #OscarsSoWhite

This year’s Golden Globes were like most award shows—long, self-congratulatory and exceedingly white.


Chris Osterndorf


Posted on Jan 11, 2016   Updated on May 27, 2021, 9:23 am CDT

When director Spike Lee received an honorary Oscar this past November, it was an important moment for the entertainment industry. As one of the pioneers of black Hollywood, this wasn’t just an award, it was a milestone. And yet in some ways, it also felt like an admonishment.

“We can talk, you know, yabba, yabba, yabba, but we need to have some serious discussion about diversity, and get some flave up in this!” he said in his acceptance speech. “It’s easier to be president of the United States as a black person than be head of a studio. Honest.”

During Sunday night’s Golden Globes ceremony there were several lowlights, including Quentin Tarantino’s use of the word “ghetto,” and Sylvester Stallone apparently forgetting to thank his black co-star and director after winning Best Supporting Actor for Creed (a mistake which, to be fair, he realized after the fact.) Of course, there were several highlights too, such as Taraji P. Henson’s win for Best Actress in a TV Series, for her performance on Empire, and America Ferrera and Eva Longoria’s hilarious bit making fun of Hollywood’s treatment of Latina actresses in the industry.

But overall, this year’s Golden Globes were like most award shows—long, self-congratulatory and exceedingly white.

As we head into awards season—Oscar nominations will be announced on Thursday—everyone is anxious to see whether the Academy Awards will correct the lack of diversity that plagued the ceremony last year.

As we head into awards season everyone is anxious to see whether the Academy Awards will correct the lack of diversity that plagued the ceremony last year. 

The Oscars will have a black host this year, with the return of host comedian Chris Rock. And it’s worth noting that the Academy President herself, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, is black. But head of the nominations, many are fearing the return of #OscarsSoWhite, the hashtag created by activist and writer April Reign, which started a conversation about the lack of diversity amongst the acting nominees last year, all 20 of whom were white.

The Oscars’ diversity struggles are indeed plentiful, and not to be ignored. But although awards are a part of representation, it’s important to remember the bigger issue within the industry is not how many nominations are given to minority actors and filmmakers, but how much opportunity those actors and filmmakers actually get in order to be nominated in the first place.

Obviously, there are things the Academy could (and should) do to increase opportunities for minority actors to get nominated. The first is just to watch movies which don’t exclusively star white people. “After watching 20 films, if you decide Ryan Coogler is the best director for the movie Creed, then nominate him,” April Reign recently told MTV News. “If you’ve decided it’s not him, then that’s fine, but make sure you watch movies that are representative of America and the world and not just those stars who look like you or movies that make you feel comfortable.”

This may sound simple, but Creed is an excellent example of why that’s not always the case. While Sylvester Stallone is riding high on a wave of (well-deserved) Oscar buzz for his performance, Academy members are not only more likely to pass over Coogler, but also co-star Michael B. Jordan when nomination time comes, because they are not household names. It’s a well-known fact that many Academy members don’t even watch the films they nominate, and that many just vote for their friends. As an established star, Stallone may get marked down by people who haven’t even seen the film, but he’s only one of the reasons Creed is so great, and it would be a shame for Academy members to neglect the others.

There’s also a fundamental laziness on the part of most studios to campaign for diverse movies properly. As Reign notes, Selma was shut out of most major categories last year, due largely to poor marketing and a lack of screeners being sent out on behalf of the film. And with the amount of campaigning that it really takes to get an Oscar nomination in this day and age, pretty much no movie can get recognized without a strong push behind it.

Then there are the Academy voters themselves. The Academy has long been old, white, and male, but last summer, they made some effort to correct that by adding over twice the amount of new members as usual—322, to be precise, rather than the typical 100 to 200. This was done with an aim to include more women, more people of color, and more people from countries other than the United States. But when you hold these efforts up against the Academy’s established 6,000 members, which in a 2014 survey were found to be 93 percent white, 76 percent male, with a median age of 63, they no longer look so impressive. If the Academy really wants to make a push for diversity, they need to start going after non-white, non-male members more aggressively.

The Oscars would do well to take a look at the Emmys. As the face of America has changed in recent years, television has debatably done a better job at reflecting that than film has. The Emmys have made an effort to celebrate this effort with their yearly Dynamic & Diverse event, and with many of the nominations and eventual wins at last year’s ceremony.

“Film needs to take a leaf out of the TV book especially with diversity and women starring, directing and producing,” David Oyelowo, who portrayed Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, told the Los Angeles Times’ Scott Collins. “There is a far more representative view of what it is to be in America from TV.” John Ridley, the Oscar-winning writer of 12 Years a Slave and creator of the Emmy-nominated American Crime, also weighed in:  “I don’t like to say ‘diversity’ in 2015. I like to say ‘reality.’ Look at the stories around us … these are different types of shows, different types of perspectives.”

As the face of America has changed in recent years, television has debatably done a better job at reflecting that than film has. 

The reality that Ridley talks about was felt particularly following Viola Davis’ Emmy win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for How to Get Away with Murder, which made her the first black woman ever to receive the award. “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” Davis said in her inspiring acceptance speech. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” And while her award was more of a first step than anything, it is still a marker that television’s increasingly diverse landscape is doing things that film isn’t. “So many black female actors grace our television screens each week because film studios have deemed them dispensable,” Kimberly Foster wrote at the Guardian.

“After years of tokenism—minority actors traditionally relegated to ‘buddy’ roles in shows created by and aimed at white people—television is embracing diversity amid a larger creative renaissance,” writes Collins. But while he is basically correct in this assertion, Emmy history remains woefully unbalanced. It was also observed during last year’s telecast that the sheer amount of white faces in the audience proves that television, like film, still has a long way to go.

This is why awards shows are always going to be a difficult starting place for diversity. The mechanisms in place are too reactive and ultimately, there is altogether too much self-congratulation and too much hand-wringing.

Take The Hollywood Reporter’s latest actress roundtable. In compiling a list of women to feature on the cover and interview about awards buzz, they could not find one single woman of color. To make matters worse, they apologized for their mistake as it was happening, writing that “the awful truth is that there are no minority actresses in genuine contention for an Oscar this year.”

“The message was: It isn’t the media, it’s the industry, so blame them,” said The Atlantic’s David Sims. “But it would have been easy for the magazine to invite actors of color who were on the fringes of the awards race—thereby using its power to draw attention to a more diverse talent pool.” Sims is right. The Hollywood Reporter is a powerful publication. All they would’ve had to do was include at least one non-white woman who may have stood an outside chance at getting nominated if they didn’t want to look like hypocrites. They could’ve actually changed the conversation. But instead, they remained as complacent as everyone else in the industry.

Kimberly Foster expounded on this further:

“That the actors in question are the presumptive nominees for the film industry’s most prestigious awards doesn’t mean much when [THR Managing Editor Stephen] Galloway acknowledged that their placement on the cover is not based on their performances because the editors have not yet seen them. And merit-based arguments for an all-white cover are moot when ‘merit’ is solely determined by a system that disregards the talent of black female actors, relegates them to stereotypical, underdeveloped roles and does not push them for greater exposure in publications like the Hollywood Reporter.”

“The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag is what people want to hear about,” Selma director Ava DuVernay recently told the Los Angeles Times. “But it’s a privileged point of view to think that everyone’s end goal is to be in that fancy room. This work needs to be done so people of color can see themselves as real people on screen. That’s an issue of survival, essential to our personhood and our humanity and our dignity. It has nothing to do with those hashtags.”

The “work” that DuVernay is talking about is nothing less than the fight of minorities to carve out some kind of space within the entertainment industry. The American Civil Liberties Union has called for inquiry into Hollywood’s hiring practices in the wake of new information about the entertainment industry’s gender gap (journalist Mark Harris has speculated that this may also be the year of #OscarsSoMale, after observing that many female-driven films seem to be getting left in the dust.) Chris Rock made waves last year when he discussed Jennifer Lawrence’s essay on pay disparities between men and women in Hollywood, suggesting that if Lawrence was a black woman, she’d had even more to complain about.

Sadly, Rock is all too right. Consider the findings of the University of California-Los Angeles’ 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, conducted by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. It concluded that a paltry 17 (16.7, to be exact) percent of lead actors in major Hollywood films were non-white. Minority directors fared a hair better, at 18 percent, while non-white writers made up only 12 percent. The report also found that most non-white talent tend to be represented outside of Hollywood’s major agencies, making it harder for them to get parts equivalent to those of their white peers.  

These findings echo those of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, which released a report in 2013 that found out of 100 of the highest grossing films of that year, only 6.5 percent had black directors. These black directors cast black actors in 46 percent of all speaking roles, while white directors cast black actors in a mere 10 percent. Meanwhile, in 2014, USC Annenberg found that the percentage of black actors given major roles in Hollywood was just 12.5 percent. Hispanics occupied 4.9 percent, Asians occupied 5.3 percent, while those in the “other” category continued to occupy 4.2 percent of all major roles.

In other areas, progress has come with caveats. For instance, although USC discovered Hispanic women were featured in popular films more than any other race of women, they were found to be partially or totally nude on screen more than any other race too—which is especially unfortunate, given that one study found Hispanic women over 25 to be the country’s most loyal moviegoers. Such oversexualization also speaks to the limited parts available for actors of color, who are often forced to play stereotypes and caricatures.

If there’s a single moment from 2015 that best sums all this up, it has to be Matt Damon’s confrontation with producer Effie Brown on the latest season of HBO’s filmmaking competition, Project Greenlight. “When we’re talking about diversity you do it in the casting of the film not in the casting of the show,” Damon said. He later apologized for his comments, but by that point, it was too late. Damon had already spoken volumes about what Hollywood really thinks of diversity. In an essay for TIME magazine, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar discussed how his words were troubling on multiple levels:  

“Of course, there was backlash that accused Damon of wanting to maintain whites behind the camera while giving the illusion of diversity by showing black faces on the screen. That is the true problem with diversity in Hollywood. But it wasn’t really what Damon meant. He was saying that because they were selecting among finalists, it was already too late in the competition to make diversity a criteria for selection. He was right.”

So not only did Damon inadvertently sum up Hollywood’s lackadaisical attitudes on diversity, he inadvertently hit on the lack of diversity of the very show he was on. Again, we saw how Hollywood’s race gap is insidious and inescapable.

We should not completely despair. In preparation for the release of the refreshingly diverse blockbuster Furious 7. Entertainment Weekly’s Chris Lee noted that the franchise is proof Hollywood should make more movies to fit with a contemporary American audience. Lee observed that minorities represented 46 percent of movie ticket sales in 2013, and that three-quarters of the people who saw Fast & Furious 6 that year were non-white, and half of them were under 25—the demographic that traditionally purchases the most tickets nationwide. Diverse casts also represent big business around the world. Seventy percent of Fast 6’s $789 million gross came from audiences outside of the U.S., and 76.7 percent of Fast 7’s $1.5 billion dollar haul came from its global audience.

And then there’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Already the highest grossing movie ever in North America, and potentially on pace to become the highest grossing movie of all time, The Force Awakens presented a galaxy far, far away, which thanks to several cast additions looked refreshingly more like our own. Which means that its box office totals are not just impressive, they’re significant; they mean something.

Together with Creed, Star Wars: The Force Awakens represents a new kind of Oscar contender: One with universal appeal, which also reflects the reality of the world today. “Yes, the movie would have made money no matter what, but it’s undeniable that it appealed to the franchise’s broadest audience yet,” writes Sims at The Atlantic. “That’s why the cast of The Force Awakens inspired such excitement. It’s why Creed is that rare Hollywood reboot that manages to explore fascinating new thematic ground while telling a familiar story.”

The Oscars should recognize such stories, stories that convey the reality John Ridley speaks about so passionately. But for that to happen, Hollywood has to cast more non-white actors, from blockbusters all the way down to indies, and they have to allow more non-white writers and directors to create them. Because before such movies can get nominated, they first have to get made.

Chris Osterndorf is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on Mic, Salon, xoJane, the Week, and more. When he’s not writing, he enjoys making movies with friends. He lives in Los Angeles.

Image via David Torcivia / Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed 

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*First Published: Jan 11, 2016, 7:39 pm CST