Many of us who pay attention to the academy awards recall the memorable 2015 Oscars in which the nominees in all major categories were mostly white. We laughed at the hilarious tweets poking fun at white people, like the tweet that started it all: “@ReignOfApril: #OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair,” and when Chris Rock called the 2016 Oscars the “White People’s Choice Awards.” There was outrage about the lack of diversity amongst viewers and actors alike.
Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyongo’o said that she was “disappointed” with the lack of diversity in nominations and Reese Witherspoon called for a “more diverse voting membership” in the Academy. Although there were some dissenters, including Oscar-winner Gerald Molen who called boycotters “spoiled brats,” many people agreed that more could be done to include non-white people in the Academy Award nominations and in the film industry itself.
It has been five long years since the controversy in 2015, and again the Academy is being criticized for both its lack of non-white people nominated in the actor categories and for its lack of women being nominated in production categories, specifically Best Director. Only one Black actor was nominated in the acting categories, Cynthia Erivo, who played Harriet Tubman in the bio-pic Harriet, a film about the life of legendary American abolitionist, spy, and former slave. Erivo recognized the lack of diversity in the nominations stating that: “It’s not enough that I’m the only one.”
Some celebrities have also spoken out on the behalf of Greta Gerwig, director of the largely popular Little Women which has been nominated for several Oscars including Best Picture. Many believe that Gerwig should have been nominated for Best Director, which would have made her the only woman in history to have been nominated for Best Director twice. Florence Pugh, who has been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Little Women said that the snub was “a big blow.”
It has also been pointed out that in the entire history of the Academy, only five women have ever been nominated for Best Director, and only one has won. Similarly, according to the BBC, over the last ten years, out of 200 nominations, only 27 people of colour were nominated and only seven of them won in their categories.
There were some positive instances of diversity this awards season. Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s thriller Parasite, which tells the story of a poor family in Seoul, was nominated for several awards including Best Picture, and Ho himself was nominated for Best Director. This was offset, however, by the lack of nominations for The Farewell which also features Asian actors and a female director and scored a whopping 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.
In the eyes of many, diversity within the Academy Awards leaves much to be desired, and it raises the question: is it the lack of people of colour and women in the industry or in the Academy voting body that leads to a mostly white and mostly male awards season?
According to Martha Lauzen, director of the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, part of the problem is that as of 2019, women only make up 13% of directors and 19% of writers, despite making up half of the world’s population. These percentages are the highest they’ve ever been, but Lauzen believes that it is “odd to talk about reaching historic highs when women remain so far from parity.”
As for people of colour, the University of California, Los Angeles published a study in 2017 showing that of the 200 highest grossing films of that year, only 12.6% had a non-white director, and only 19.8% had a lead actor of colour. Non-white people make up 40% of the US population and, according to the 2011 UK census, 18.1% of the UK is non-white. That population has been continuing to increase in both the states and in the UK.
Some believe that the issue lies in the lack of recognition for female and non-white talent, not in the lack of said talent. Florence Pugh said that the lack of female nominees in filmmaking categories was very disappointing: “The very fact that last year we had more female writers and directors than ever and we’re still coming up against it is quite an obvious problem.”
Steve McQueen, director of Hunger (2009) and 12 Years a Slave (2014), believes that this is not an industry problem: “When these films [films made by non-white people] are being made to critical acclaim, they’re not even being recognized – that’s nonsense.”
The Academy did recognize the lack of diversity in their membership and said in a statement that they planned on “doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.” The Baftas, which were also criticized for their lack of diversity this year, is planning a similar initiative.
The number of people of colour in the Academy did double to 16%. However, as of 2020, the Academy remains 68% male and 84% white. Clearly, the Academy has lived up to its own expectations, but an increase from 8% non-white to 16% is not enough for many people.
Taking into account the argument given by both sides, those who believe it to be an industry problem and those who believe it to be an academy problem, it seems that one very much holds a solution to the other. Through the recognition of films made by women and non-white filmmakers, the Academy is essentially endorsing the push for diversity within the industry. When one film made by black people about black people is praised and recognized, it encourages other black actors and filmmakers to push for their projects to be greenlit. Take Get Out as an example. This 2017 satire/horror film directed by Jordan Peele was met with widespread support and critical acclaim, which allowed for his second film Us to be greenlit.
Films by women are treated similarly. Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird, a film about a teenager’s relationship with her mother, gave Gerwig her first Oscar nomination and allowed for this year’s Little Women, a film by women, about women, based on a book written by a woman.
Former president Barack Obama once said in an interview that, “when everybody’s story is told, then that makes for better art.” When the Academy recognizes unique stories, other storytellers are given the confidence to go ahead with theirs, and we all benefit.
Stories like Parasite, Little Women and Harriet, introduce us to unique stories that are worth telling, from interesting perspectives that are worth listening to, and if the Academy makes tangible steps to diversify and continues to recognize stories like these in the future, than audiences will continue to be entertained for years to come.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons