As Oscars approach, Hollywood continues to grapple with diversity

Photo by Walt Disney Television via Flickr

By Isabela Rocha, Nyah Jordan and Matthew Meusel
Boston University News Service

As the Oscars approach, recent research shows that Hollywood has been taking some steps toward improving diversity in the industry, but the opening credits are just starting to roll.

White men are still the majority among directors, producers, writers and actors in film and TV. 

Of this year’s approximate 322 main cast and crew members of the Oscars’ Best Picture nominated movies, about 75.8% are white and about 64.6% are men, according to a data assessment by Boston University News Service. Only one cast member openly belongs to the LGBTQIA+ community: Laverne Cox, an actress and Black transwoman, who played the character Gail in the movie “Promising Young Woman.” 

Darnell M. Hunt, the co-author of the UCLA 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report, said the lack of diversity within the industry could lead to stereotyping that has social consequences. 

“A lot of what we think of other groups, we get through media images and [as a result] we tend to make assumptions about people’s characters that aren’t true,” Hunt said. “That can create political issues and problems when groups harbor ill will towards other groups when, in fact, they’re basing their information on misinformation and media.”

After five years of the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter polemic, “Nomadland” director Chloé Zhao was the first woman of color nominated for Best Director and Steven Yeun was the first Korean nominated for Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in “Minari.” In terms of gender diversity, it was the first time the academy nominated two women ― Zhao and Emerald Fennell, the director of “Promising Young Woman” ― for Best Director. 

In a controversial decision by the Academy, both Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield, “Judas and the Black Messiah” co-leads, were nominated as best supporting actors.

Individuals on Twitter praised the actors for their performance while expressing varied opinions in response to the Academy’s choice. 

Historically, 29 people of color have won 32 Academy Awards. This represents about 9% of the all-time wins. Two openly LGBTQIA+ community members have been awarded as well: Marlon Brando and Kevin Spacey. 

Among all senior executive positions at Hollywood studios, 93% are currently held by white people and 80% by men, according to the 2020 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report.

Lack of diversity in Hollywood is a problem at the writer’s table as well. A film and TV writer since the early 90s, Debbie Danielpour Chapel, said there wasn’t much gender diversity when she started. She said her agent would tell her to only put her initials on a script so people reading it couldn’t tell her gender. 

“There was one pitch meeting I walked into and the people who were waiting for me stood up and said ‘Oh my God, you’re a woman!’” Chapel said. “I was aware that I had a great disadvantage and I had to work extra hard to get noticed and hide my identity on my manuscripts.”

Chapel also said there are a lot of areas in the film industry still lacking gender diversity, but she has noticed some progress compared to when she got started. 

In an attempt to shed light on racial disparities, Mckinsey & Company, a management consulting firm in collaboration with BlackLight Collective, a coalition of Black artists and executives, recently analyzed a broad spectrum of the film and TV industry. The analysis reviewed several areas, including studios, networks, production companies and streaming companies.

The study concluded that while some progress has been made, there are persistent inequities that need to be addressed. Among the issues the report spotlighted are the underfunding of Black projects — even in cases where they have earned high returns, fewer opportunities afforded to emerging Black actors in comparison to their white counterparts and a lack of minorities in top management positions.

In an attempt to address on-going criticism, last year the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences launched the Aperture 2025 diversity initiative. This initiative is aimed at “broadening the lens through which [the academy] recognizes excellence,” according to a press release. The initiative lays out plans to broaden the number of films members are exposed to in the nomination process. It also mandates bias training for Academy governors and staff.

New representation and inclusion standards have been instituted for the Best Picture category as well. To be eligible for a Best Picture nomination, a film will be required to fulfill at least two of the four established standards, including diverse representation on-screen, in leadership and creative positions such as director, editor, writers and designers. It will also be required to provide more industry access and opportunities to minorities through internships and apprenticeships. 

While there is still a long way to go in terms of diversity at the Oscars, progress is being made. As one of the consultants on the new standards, Hunt said he thinks the Academy took a good first step; but, it is still early to tell if the new requirements will effectively bring more diversity to the industry. 

“I definitely applaud the Academy for doing that,” Hunt said. “It’s forcing studios at least to think about [diversity].”

Best Actress Nominees by Matthew Meusel

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