The 2015 Oscar
nominations upset many people. When the Academy nominated the highly
regarded film Selma for Best Picture but snubbed its African-American female
director, Ava DuVernay, publications as diverse as Forbes and The
Root weighed in with articles about how this was yet another example of
Hollywood’s entrenched racism and sexism. The brilliant hashtag #Oscarsowhite blew
up on Twitter, taking Hollywood to task for its lack of diversity in all categories but one: documentary feature. Similarly, in 2012, when a study revealed
that Academy members are 94%
white, 77% male, and only 14% under the age of 50, there was a lot written about the lack of diversity in nominations, but nothing specifically about the documentary category.
This is strange, given that the feature documentary category remains one
of the least diverse Oscar categories.
When was the
last time a filmmaker of color won the feature documentary category? Or the last time a female documentary of color director won that category? Please tell me if I’m wrong, but from what I can tell, there
have only been four female directors of color ever
nominated in this category (Christine
Choy and Renee
Tajima-Peña for Who killed Vincent Chin, winner Frieda Lee Mock for Maya Lin: A Strong and Clear Vision — all three of whom were nominated in last century — and in 2013, Jehane
Noujaim for The Square).
This is made all-the-more infuriating by
the fact that stories about our lives and experiences do get nominated with
regularity (Lalee’s Kin, Daughter from Danang, and 20 Feet from Stardom to
name a few). But it’s not often that we are not the ones telling them. And the
few times that we are, we too get snubbed, not even making it on the documentary Oscar’s coveted shortlist.
Some may say that documentaries from female directors or those of color are just not as as good as [fill in the name of a documentary directed by a white male filmmaker].
But I don’t think that is true. Often, those same snubbed films made by us are
honored and lauded by publications and organizations that are specifically
interested in women and people of color. So I think we must look at who is
doing the judging and who is writing the reviews. Who are the gatekeepers specifically
interested in? It was recently revealed that the New York Times has no black
culture critics on its staff and only two culture critics who are people of
color. This certainly affects how our documentaries are received and the kind
of attention they get, which trickles back to Academy voters.
Why does any of this
matter? First of all, the fact that we are not talking about
diversity in this category masks a problem in the field as a whole. The
documentary industry is indeed more accessible and, as a Sundance study revealed, there are more women directors and
producers in the documentary field than in fiction (there is no analysis of the representation of people of
color in the report). However, the documentary industry still
has a race problem, in that there are not enough people of color telling our own
stories. This problem is multi-faceted, with issues stemming from who is on grant committees and what their interests are to broadcasters
commissioning the same filmmakers over and over again and not expanding the
pool of who they “trust” to make a film, from the aforementioned lack of
diversity of the gatekepers to the incredible hoops documentary filmmakers have to go
through to even qualify for an Oscar nomination.
Just like in the
feature category, these awards — and not just the Academy Awards but other
documentary-industry awards — bestow not only prestige but help getting future grants and commissioned work, which not only
sustains us financially but gives us more opportunities to hone our craft. It’s
time for the documentary branch to take a long, hard look at itself, just like
other branches are doing, and ask why it is that we have so few female
documentarians of color competing, much less winning, in this category.
Yoruba Richen is
an award-winning documentary filmmaker and director of the Documentary Program
at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.