Unless you’ve been living underneath a soundproof rock, you’ve surely heard that the nominations for the 2016 Academy Awards were announced last week, and in a repeat of last year, there was an appalling lack of diversity therein. No actor of color picked up even one of the 20 acting nominations, despite strong contenders—Idris Elba of “Beasts Of No Nation” was perhaps the foremost candidate to not make the final cut— and were it not for “The Revenant” and its Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and DP Emmanuel Lubezki, there would be no persons of color in the Best Picture, Director, Cinematographer or Editing fields at all.
With respect to women, who didn’t even get the consolation prize of a trending #OscarsSoWhite-style meme, the picture is even more grim: no female-directed film received a Best Picture nod (with 8 of only 10 slots being utilized), and no women were nominated in the Directing or Cinematography categories. “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” both feature nominated female editors, while the Documentary Feature and Foreign Language Feature categories feature one film directed by a woman each. And 4 of the 20 screenwriters named as nominees are women, but that’s how far you have to stray from the major Oscars before you encounter a female creative presence.
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This year, it was the lack of ethnic rather than gender diversity that really got the outrage glands woking. Perhaps that’s partly due to a couple of strong, high-profile, well-received films featuring black directors and casts that were no-shows. Ryan Coogler‘s “Creed” had vocal momentum, but its white star Sylvester Stallone is the only one to be nominated from the film. And despite winning approval from SAG, WGA and the PGA, three incredibly strong award season augurs, “Straight Outta Compton,” the most viable Best Picture contender to feature a black cast and director, was shut out completely, except for its Screenplay nod, which nominated…. the film’s four white writers. Ouch! Hey, at least one of them is a woman.
The social media backlash was swift and merciless, with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite becoming a worldwide trending topic, and the ramifications are still being felt this week. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs expressed her disappointment with the outcome, promising reform in the voting process. Note the difference in her tone this week, compared to her similar but defensive position last year which turned nearly exasperated in the outcome. Personalities including Jada Pinkett-Smith, Spike Lee, Don Cheadle, David Oyelowo and George Clooney have either expressed their disapproval or vowed to boycott Oscar night (host Chris Rock even hazed the ceremony as “the White BET Awards”). In fact, disappointment was vented in nearly all corners of the Internet and the wider media. So is the Academy racist? Is that even a useful question to ask?
The Academy is still predominantly comprised of old white guys, and efforts to change the make-up which have seen nearly 800 new voting members added in the last couple of years have done little to really impact the bottom line. A 2012 LA Times study found that the membership was 94% Caucasian, 77% male with a median age of 62, and only 14% of its membership were under 50. In 2013, new additions for that year shifted the first two statistics down by a whopping 1% each (93% Caucasian, 76% male) and had actually nudged the median age up to 63.
So the Academy is changing and diversifying its membership, but not dramatically enough to make any discernible difference. And ultimately, while we can rail against the Academy, there was truth in Isaacs’ words last year: the core issue is an industry-wide problem with the lack of diversity and representation extending far, far beyond awards season. Just look at the number of “films of color” being made by major studios —the ones with enough money to spend on a persuasive Oscar campaign— let alone being made at all. This year, the Academy had 3, maybe 4 films boasting any kind of diversity to choose from as serious contenders across the categories: “Beasts of No Nation,” “Creed,” “Straight Outta Compton” and “Concussion” at a stretch. To say nothing of the barren landscape voters faced with regard to female-directed films benefitting from any kind of awards push.
But there are myriad factors at play beyond institutional racism/sexism, bias and risk-averse studio gatekeepers only taking a chance on a “12 Years A Slave” or a “Hurt Locker” every three or four years. One sizable factor that has perhaps not been considered much in this context is just how many of the most talented females filmmakers and directors of color are migrating to television, bringing their more diverse stories, casts and crews with them.
It’s becoming accepted wisdom: as the economics for middle-class mid-budgeted movies shrink, adult dramas have migrated to television. And in turn, a creative brain drain is in effect, with established (white, male) filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Cameron Crowe, David Lynch and many more having already partly transitioned to prestige TV projects. The concomitant explosion in quality programming has created a landscape where cable networks and aggressive streaming competitors like Netflix and Amazon have the money and the inclination to invest in expanding their offerings. This shift has seen a greater ability to cater to traditionally underserved audiences, by telling stories from diverse perspectives. This “Golden Age of Television” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: success brings more viewers and creates greater demand for fresh properties that reflect the make-up of an expanding and diverse audience. So as TV begins to take over from movies in terms of leading the cultural entertainment narrative, in comparison to #OscarsSoWhite (which as we’ve already suggested is really #HollywoodSoWhite), television has become a rainbow, relatively speaking.
In contrast to the consolidation characterizing recent studio maneuvering (is there anything that Disney does not yet own?), television has seen a proliferation of new outlets and options, with aggressive marketing tactics and voracious appetites for new content. As you’ve heard by now, Netflix has doubled down on PeakTV, ordering a massive 600 hours of new programming in 2016 —chief Ted Sarandos believes that television’s growth trajectory is nearly limitless.
And so “Selma” filmmaker Ava DuVernay is developing her own drama series on Oprah’s OWN; Lee Daniels’ “Empire” has become a massive cultural force, and that Fox program shows that even network TV, which traditionally has lagged far behind cable, is starting to make a crucial investment in diversity. Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley (”12 Years a Slave”) is helping to reshape ABC’s rep with the critically acclaimed “American Crime” (and also has another Marvel/ABC show in the works), and the network already has a big hit with Kenya Barris‘ “Black-ish,” and diverse lineups in “Quantico” and “Dr. Ken.” This phenomenon is expanding as well: Shadow and Act reported in March that no fewer than 73 new TV pilots had been ordered that featured black actors in leading or supporting roles —is it any wonder that Idris Elba recently held U.S. television up as a gold standard to which the much less diverse U.K. television tradition should aspire?
And it’s not only about representation of African-Americans: USA Networks’ hit “Mr. Robot” is run by an Egyptian-American Sam Esmail, with Egyptian-American Rami Malek in the lead, and Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” is a rare show with a Indian-American lead that gives voice to an entire culture that has thus far almost been totally underrepresented on TV other than through lame stereotypes. ABC also has Nahnatchka Kahn‘s “Fresh off the Boat,” featuring a Taiwanese family coming to America, while the CW has a breakout hit on its hands with the Latina-led “Jane the Virgin.”
And that’s before we even bring up Shonda Rhimes, who has essentially become the Spielberg of television, currently running three major shows, with a fourth, “The Catch,” debuting in March. Of course, two of three Shondaland shows currently on the air —“Scandal” and “How To Get Away With Murder”— feature leading roles for black women, while the third, the long-running “Grey’s Anatomy,” has always boasted one of the most diverse ensembles on TV. So here we are debating #OscarsSoWhite, and arguably the most important person in television today is African-American and female.
Rhimes’s unstoppable rise is a great example of the fact that not only is there an increase in the number of female showrunners, but their shows are major influences on current entertainment trends. Jenji Kohan‘s “Orange Is The New Black,” Jill Soloway‘s “Transparent,” Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi‘s “The Affair,” Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro‘s “UnREAL,” Melissa Rosenberg‘s “Jessica Jones,” Marta Kaufman and Howard J Morris‘ “Grace and Frankie,” Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna‘s recent surprise Golden Globes winner “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Lena Dunham‘s “Girls,” Elizabeth Meriwether‘s “New Girl” and Jennie Snyder Urman‘s “Jane the Virgin” are all run by female showrunners (as are all the mega successful “CSI” shows and spin-offs).
It feels like an avalanche, but TV showrunners and creators are still predominantly white and male if you do the math. Yet diversity in the TV field certainly beats the film industry hands down (see THR’s most powerful showrunners). More importantly, it feels like a rising tide as opposed to the stuttering tokenism that Hollywood displays and which the #OscarsSoWhite meme exposes.
In an environment in which prestige TV is already increasingly siphoning viewers away from movie theaters, the film industry can ill afford to lose even more ground to its small-screen rival by treating an increase in diversity output as though it were a gift it can choose to bestow… or not. The lack of non-white representation in high-profile, Oscar-friendly studio films is not the comfortable “tut-tut, that’s a shame” situation it might have been back when film still held the balance of power over television. This is not a genteel issue: increasing the representation of ethnic minorities and women, both behind and in front of the movie camera, is urgent.
We’re not sure that the industry at large has even recognized that yet. Instead, Hollwyood seems content to get caught up in ultimately unproductive arguments about how racist the Academy is and who is to blame for the current state of affairs, while it may already be too late to course-correct. Even if you are a studio honcho with the power to greenlight a production, and you suddenly understand that you need to diversify your portfolio —who’s to say you’ll even be able to find the properties and talents anymore? After all, the women and people of color, the ones with the stories you need to be telling as a matter of survival, are probably already pitching Netflix.
— Rodrigo Perez with Jessica Kiang