Opinion: The Problem With Racial Diversity in Hollywood

Photo by Prayitno (via Flickr).
Written by Emilio Domenech

By Emilio Doménech
BU News Service

The Academy Awards aren’t racist. Yet this year, after two consecutive seasons in which no black actors, directors or writers have been nominated, the b(l)acklash has been enormous. The Oscars go through such extensive media coverage that even the smallest controversy is submitted to the toughest of scrutinies. This is a response we need to have, but not one that needs to be translated into pointing blame at the Academy.

The blame should rest on Hollywood.

Whoopi Goldberg summed it up very well on “The View” three weeks ago: “It’s not that the people doing the nominating are too white. They’re not looking at a movie and saying, ‘that’s very white.” Truthfully, I can’t imagine a 70-year-old using IMDb, the online film database, just to rule out films with black actors, writers or directors.

In Hollywood, money is everything. Kevin Hart can lead studio comedies because he’s become a seasoned box office favorite. Morgan Freeman can play God because audiences are used to see him portraying that kind of role.

And Will Smith can star in films like “Seven Pounds” or “The Pursuit of Happyness” and make money without question, even internationally. He can even produce “After Earth” and give the only two roles in the film to him and his son, for God’s sake. Which makes his outspoken comments about the Academy’s racial divide sound hypocritical.

Now, the Academy is trying to take measures to increase diversity. One solution is to take away voting rights from Academy members who have not been active in the business for more than 10 years. That means retired members would not have a vote if they haven’t worked in the industry in the past decade. And while that measure would indeed increase diversity (assuming that Academy members older than 50 are all white), it would also imply that the ones making the wrong calls are, in fact, all old and white.

Because not many opportunities — not even in Will Smith’s films — are given to black actors in terms of mid-budget comedies or dramas. Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar two years ago and her biggest role since then, according to her IMDb profile, is the Oscar gala she attended afterward. Margot Robbie, also one of 2013’s biggest stars because of her breakthrough role in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” has starred in four films since then and landed parts in two of the 2016’s biggest blockbusters: “Suicide Squad” and “The Legend of Tarzan.” Nyong’o did get parts in films like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “The Jungle Book,” but they were both voiceovers.

It’s also hard for black actors to land star roles in original scripts. Black actors are called only when is absolutely necessary, as in the case of “12 Years a Slave” or the soon-to-be “Black Panther.” It’s hard to see blockbusters with black leads because the pessimistic status quo believes a film like “The Martian” couldn’t be led by someone like Chiwetel Ejiofor.

There are stories about black struggle (like “The Birth of a Nation,” which won the Sundance Film Festival last week) or black activism (like “Selma,” which was nominated for Best Picture last year), but they take years to make — Nate Parker spent seven years on “The Birth of a Nation.” The films that try to approach racial equality from different angles are even rarer.

“Creed,” a film about a rich black man that ditches being an accountant to box for a living, is one of those unusual examples. It is a movie both directed (Ryan Coogler) and led (Michael B. Jordon, Tessa Thompson) by black people, and none of its themes are related to black struggle or activism. Rather, it normalizes its black characters. Critics praised the film and it did very well at the box office for Warner Bros., but “Creed” ultimately made the cut because it was part of the “Rocky” franchise. And that’s it.

There are black actors, directors and writers out there, but it’s harder to find black agents, producers or executives, which is keeping black artistry from finding its place in the business. It’s in those corporate offices where pessimism reigns; where the chance of green-lighting black films is smaller. Where a call from an agent trying to land a film for his black actor isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

But some Oscar pundits are proposing new and interesting measures that would reshape the way we talk about the Oscars. Film journalist David Poland said he would enact a two-phase voting process so as many as 20 films could be nominated for Best Picture. Then, three of those 20 movies would be selected by a committee to make sure notable films are accounted for.

He has a point.

But regardless of voting processes and awards, Hollywood has a problem. And it has nothing to do with the color of the Oscars. The Oscars are still just about gold and merit.

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