Hollywood’s diversity problem extends well beyond the Oscars

Isabelle Marmur

The lack of diversity at the 88th Annual Academy Awards has been well documented by the public and the press since the nominees were announced in January. However, not only were all of the winners white, but all 20 of the acting nominees were as well. The eight films nominated for best picture predominantly starred white actors as well.

There may be issues within the Academy that should be addressed, but now that the awards season has concluded, the main focus of Hollywood should be shifted to the lack of diversity in the industry as a whole.

One example that conveys the current issue in the film industry is not the fact that nearly all major Oscar categories were filled with white nominees, but the fact that there were so few people of color to contend for their spaces. The only nominees that were determined to be “snubbed” were “Straight Outta Compton” and “Beasts of No Nation” for best picture, and Idris Elba, Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael B. Jordan for the acting categories.

Illustration by Asha Cummings
Illustration by Asha Cummings

Four roles all played by black men that are considered contenders are simply not enough for there to be an assurance that people of color will come out “winners” during awards season. For there to be change in those who get to claim golden trophies once every 365 days, there have to be more movies with diverse casts in theaters the other 364.

Change needs to start with studios at the top. USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released their first ever Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment on Feb. 22, which included a measure of racial inclusivity of each of the major film studios and the amount of underrepresented speaking roles. In this particular measurement, only Sony and Viacom studios were found fully racially inclusive. All other studios that were part of the study (21st Century Fox, NBC Universal, Disney and Time Warner) were determined to be either barely inclusive or not inclusive at all.

It is no secret that making money is the main objective of major Hollywood film studios. This is evident in the number of sequels to successful action movies that rake in large numbers from the box office, regardless of their reviews. For this very reason, many studios opt for predominantly white casts in order to attract larger audiences.

The New York Times recently ran a story entitled “What It’s Really Like to Work in Hollywood (*If you’re not a straight white man).” In the piece, many entertainers of color discussed their experiences in Hollywood. Justin Lin who directed the film “Better Luck Tomorrow” said that when pitching the idea to potential investors he was told his idea would never sell with an Asian-American cast.

Lin was offered $1 million to make the movie with a white cast, but he passed. This process of foregoing the artistic intentions of the producers and writers excludes not only minorities and actors, but audiences that are becoming increasingly diverse.

As the popularity behind certain television and Broadway shows have made clear, consumers of media in America don’t shy away from diverse entertainment. “Empire,” a television show starring mostly black actors, was the number one series in broadcast with 4.77 million same day viewers in the 18-49 demographic.

On Broadway, the musical “Hamilton,” a show starring a main cast almost entirely of color, is currently sold out through the end of the year and is in the works of opening three productions in other cities as well as starting a national tour.

The monetary success that comes from creating diverse roles in quality productions should indicate to Hollywood studios that not only is there the social benefit of creating inclusive entertainment, but a financial award that can be even greater than that of predominantly white entertainment. It’s unfortunate that we have to largely consider the financial aspect of Hollywood, but because of the success of diversity in other mediums of entertainment, studios should not be able to use money as an excuse for primarily making movies with white actors.

If audiences take part by ensuring that movies with people of color are successful at the box office, it is important to remember that change will not happen overnight. Television has steadily increased in diversity over the past few years––GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV report in 2015 found that 33 percent of regular characters on broadcast programming are people of color, which is six percent higher from the 2014 report––in portion due to people of color such as Shonda Rhimes, Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari having executive positions.

The 2017 Oscars may not have the diversity in nominees that everyone is looking for. In fact, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs set new rules that will only allow members voting privileges if they have completed industry work within a ten year period. The initiative appears to have the intention of weeding out older members who are largely white males that have lesser connections to film, but it is expected to take effect over a longer period of time as opposed to completely changing the makeup of the Academy within a few year span.

For now, the #OscarSoWhite hashtag must cease to exist until we have everything from rom-coms to major action flicks to prestige dramas that star people of color.