The countdown to this year’s Academy Awards was fraught with controversy over a lack of racial diversity in the acting nominees. Other major award categories, such as directing and cinematography, nominated only men. At the Oscars ceremony Sunday, diversity became a running topic of jokes and commentary for host Chris Rock, presenters, award-winners, and the Academy president.
The film industry is notoriously difficult to succeed in, particularly for those who are not white — or not male. My friend, Ames native Kate Gleason, is attending UCLA for a graduate degree in film and television directing. She wants to be a director because she loves telling stories. “Filmmaking is creative problem-solving,” she says. To be a director, in her view, a person has to love every stage of making a film, from writing, to pre-production, to being on set, to working with actors. But Gleason said female directors have to balance being leaders without coming across as being controlling.
Last month, the University of Southern California released a study (PDF) detailing an inclusion crisis in the entertainment industry. It sampled movies and TV shows released since 2014, assessing demographics of speaking characters, directors, writers, and top executives. It found that women comprised only 28.7 percent of speaking roles. Only 3.4 percent of all film directors and 10.8 percent of screenwriters were women, and women occupied 25.6 percent of top executive positions in the industry.
Among its entire sample, the study also found that non-white speaking characters comprised only 28.3 percent of all characters, 20 percent of films had no black-speaking characters, and 50 percent had no Asian-speaking characters. Non-white directors made up only 12.7 percent of all film directors in the sample, and only two of the 53 non-white film directors were black women.
At the Oscars, Rock channeled the controversy over racial exclusion in the entertainment industry throughout the evening with pointed commentary, spoofs of black characters in white roles, interviews with black moviegoers, and a shout out to #BlackLivesMatter. In his opening monologue, he joked that if host were a category for the awards he wouldn’t get the job, and called the show the “White People’s Choice Awards.”
In the past, Rock said, people didn’t protest the Oscars’ lack of diversity because they were busy protesting “real things,” adding, “We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won for best cinematographer.” If people really wanted black nominees, he said, there should be black award categories. He compared the idea to the separate acting awards for male and female performers. Whether light or brutal, Rock’s jokes generally landed with the audience, which seemed prepared for the focus on diversity.
“The Oscars celebrate the storytellers who have the opportunity to work in the powerful medium of film,” said Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy president, “and with that opportunity comes responsibility.” Chris Rock asserted that Hollywood is “sorority” racist, and few black people get hired in the industry. Isaacs challenged the entire Hollywood community to make changes so the industry accurately reflects the world. With 900 million people watching an elite group of entertainers and storytellers, Rock and Isaacs seemed to turn up the pressure for the industry to change its exclusive narrative.
Gleason thinks that being from the Midwest can make a person stand out in the film industry, where there is a general belief that Midwesterners are polite. But for now, as a female director, she said this is not particularly useful, as women are still forced to walk a fine line “between being a doormat and being perceived as a bitch.”