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Hollywood’s white carpet

By ANDREW FOERCH

After satirizing Hollywood with a jaunty musical number to open the 69th Emmy Awards this fall, host Stephen Colbert stepped to center stage, pausing to breathe in the house’s roaring applause. The camera panned out to the Microsoft Theatre auditorium in Los Angeles, CA, flashing a glimpse of the gown and tuxedo clad Television Academy crowd. It was, as usual, comprised almost wholly of Caucasian males.

It’s a powerful visual image. LL Cool J, Viola Davis and a few other black megastars pepper the front three rows, but the audience grows increasingly lily-white as you move backwards. There are almost three men for every woman present. There isn’t a turban in sight. Viewers will find crowds of similarly one-dimensional demographics at the Oscars and Golden Globes.

As such, diversity of race and gender in the film and television industry has been a major news headline over the past few awards seasons. Hollywood veterans including Jada Pinkett-Smith, Chris Rock, Spike Lee, Matt Damon and countless others have spoken out against the industry’s bias towards white men and its need to diversify.

“People are realizing this whitewashing in movies and award shows,” said Ryan Mills, a junior musical theatre major who is a black Caribbean native. “That’s a good start. To solve the problem, people need to be aware of the problem first.”

The three top Hollywood agencies — Creative Artists Agency (CAA), United Talent Agency, and William Morris Endeavor — all acknowledged the film industry’s lack of inclusion and, according to Forbes, have been working to fix it with initiatives to encourage the selection of diverse stories and personnel.

But is Hollywood really any more diverse today than it used to be?

On the surface, it seems so. 2016’s “#OscarsSoWhite” protest sparked much of the popular dialogue after, for the second consecutive year, all 20 actors nominated in lead and supporting actor categories were white. To avoid boycotts, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences launched initiative A2020, vowing to double its populations of women and people of color by 2020. The following year saw a major uptick in non-white nominations, perhaps in response to backlash against this white favoritism on screen.

In 2017, for the first time in academy history, black performers were nominated in every acting category. Moonlight, a film written and directed by a black man, won Best Picture. People of color including Denzel Washington, Octavia Spencer, Mahershala Ali, were overwhelmingly recognized for their performances in a year ripe with Oscar-worthy films. Not to mention, of the record-setting 774 people the Academy invited to join it’s membership this year, 39 percent are female and 30 percent are people of color.

So, problem solved, right? Not quite.

In a one-year context, this is a huge leap forward for a community so historically resistant to change. But look at the numbers and you’ll see it takes more than one diverse Oscar class to correct Hollywood’s monochromatic makeup.

Nearly all of last year’s “diverse” Oscar contenders (save Lion) are primarily black films. Diversity is not a synonym for blackness. A diverse industry would represent the demographics of the world. That means feature films should be exploring Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Asian characters too. Despite Hollywood’s move to diversify, these populations, along with the LGBTQ and disabled communities, have in large part been left behind.

A University of Southern California study on inequality in popular films found that Hispanic or Latino characters accounted for only 3.1 percent of all speaking roles throughout 900 films from 2016. Asian characters accounted for 5.7 percent, while Middle Eastern characters made up 3.4 percent. Just 2.7 percent were depicted with a disability. Additionally, 31 percent of all speaking roles were women, despite the fact that women make up more than 50 percent of the American population. The study also identified 4,544 characters with discernable sexuality throughout the year’s top 100 films, of which just 1.1 percent were gay, lesbian or bisexual.

“The issue goes far beyond the question of actors in Hollywood – cultural attitudes need to change,” said film professor and professional filmmaker Dana Plays.

The dots begin to connect when you look at the Hollywood studios green-lighting films. According to a study by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, studio heads are 94 percent white and 100 percent male. Studio management is 92 percent white and 83 percent male. Most of these execs are over 60. That narrow demographic identifies with characters that reflect their individual reality, not the reality of the country or world. Thus, these agencies are more likely to ignore diverse stories with minority casts.

In fact, Mills actually expects to be denied performing opportunities in the future based on his ethnicity even though it’s not something he’s ever experienced at UT.

“The thing about auditioning is you never know if you’re gonna be dealing with some flat-out racist who isn’t gonna hire me just because I’m black,” Mills said. “So I think in my future it will happen. It’s something I expect.”

Plays believes student filmmakers will play a significant role in shifting that dynamic as they begin cultivating careers.

“Film programs here at UT and other film schools embrace and celebrate women and diversity in the director’s chair,” said Plays. “It’s important that students and emerging filmmakers step up to the plate, submit to festivals, and get their work out to establish new voices so that the tides will change on these issues.”  

The diversity problem isn’t just a social issue for Hollywood — it’s a financial issue too. A study from CAA found that movies with diverse casts consistently earn more at the box office than those without. By green-lighting mostly white movies and rejecting diverse stories, agencies are cornering themselves into one market and turning up their noses at cash they could make from bigger, more diverse audiences. If the social element wasn’t enough to inspire change, presenting the problem as a detriment of the almighty dollar has surely piqued the industry’s curiosity.

When work is deemed worthy of box office returns, Hollywood producers take notice and trends change,” said Plays.

2017 was a historically diverse year for the academy, and so far 2018 is poised to follow suit. Jordan Peele will be in the discussion for Best Director with Get Out which would make him the Academy’s first ever black Best Director; Call Me By Your Name is an LGBTQ romance and Oscar hopeful in almost every major category; Mudbound is a Sundance favorite and Best Picture contender written and directed by a black woman; Roman J. Israel, ESQ. will be another Best Actor bid for Denzel Washington.

Mills described the last two years of progress as a good start, and that’s exactly what it is: a start. The next half-decade will prove whether or not Hollywood’s commitment to inclusion is real or just more movie magic.

Andrew Fierce can be reached at andrew.foerch@theminaretonline.com

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