There has been a lot of feel-good diversity press about the 2017 Oscar nominations, especially when compared to the two embarrassingly monochromatic years that preceded them. Much of that is deserved; after massive backlash led by April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite twitter campaign, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences added hundreds of women and people of color to the voting ranks — a significant, if long overdue, change to their Academy membership.
If you’re among those applauding the increasingly diverse nominations 2017, I have a question: What does diversity really means to you?
I am a black woman. Like many other black women, I’ve spent many years feeling unrepresented and invisible to our film and television industries. I have celebrated a year in which I and my children could see more than one quality representation of black men and women in a major motion picture. The success of amazing black-starring films like “Fences,” “Moonlight,” and “ ” gives me both hope and joy.
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But race and ethnicity in America is not black and white. You can’t interchange one race or ethnicity for another. My joy in seeing black characters represented in film does not satisfy the Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color who want to see their races and cultures represented.
The goal isn’t simply make the Oscars “less white.” I don’t believe that was ever the goal of people who took to Twitter in 2015 and 2016 to protest the Oscars’ homogeneity. Our goal should be to make the Oscars, and the film industry, represent the beautiful diversity of this nation. Our goal should be to make our film industry one of empowerment, instead of erasure.
So, in a year where only one actor of Asian descent is nominated in the lead or supporting actor categories (Dev Patel, Best Supporting Actor in “Lion”), and not a single Hispanic or Native American actor was nominated, is this really “diversity”?
This isn’t meant to disregard the importance of increased recognition and opportunity for black actors and filmmakers in the 2017 Oscar nominations. But progress alone is not victory, especially when there is so much more to do.
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If we are truly committed to diversity in film and film recognition, here are some places we can start:
- Remember that People of Color is not a standalone racial identity. The term is important for discussions of racism in a white supremacist society, but the idea that you can increase opportunities for one racial minority and satisfy all others is an insult to and erasure of the different races and ethnicities that make up this nation.
- Challenge the laziness of diversity initiatives that pressure people of color to settle for lopsided progress. From 2007 to 2014, Asian Americans were represented in 4.6 percent of the top 100 films each year, Hispanic Americans were represented in 3.4 percent of films, and Native Americans and Pacific Islanders were represented in less than 1 percent of films. (In 2016, they had one female lead in the animated “Moana.”) It is highly likely that a Native American child of 10 in America today may have not yet seen a single character representing their culture on screen.
- Support diverse filmmakers, not just diverse actors. Our Oscar nominations reflect not only a lack of recognition for actors of color, but also a lack of high-caliber roles. Quality, diverse films require quality, diverse filmmaking. Yes, some white writers and directors do a good job of creating and directing characters of color. Still, because people work through a lens of personal experience, these roles often lack the dimension and depth that audiences (and Academy members) need in order to connect with the characters. When so many actors of color are reduced to stereotypes and sidekicks, it’s obvious that we need more writers and directors of color to help create authentic and appealing roles.
- Don’t skip ahead to “color-blind casting.” An entertainment buzzword of 2016 was “color-blind casting,” and racial shake-ups in film, theater, and television have been lauded (“Hamilton”) and decried (“The Great Wall”). But simply “choosing the best actor for the role, regardless of race” is laudable only if we have a system that already appreciates and writes diverse films. Whiteness is still the default. A role, unless specifically stated otherwise, it is more than likely envisioned and written as white. What we value in film is highly conditioned by what we see, and what we’ve seen for the majority of film history is white. Couple that with the comparatively reduced resources and access for actors of color, and “color-blind casting” will likely produce the same results we have today. Diversifying film demands more deliberate effort — and yes, that does mean intentionally looking for actors of color for more roles. Once there’s equity in film representation, then “color-blind casting” can maintain it. But it won’t get us there.
- Avoid whitewashing characters of color. This year, we saw high-profile roles originally written for characters of color, such as The Major in “Ghost in the Shell” and The Ancient One in “Doctor Strange,” or roles that should have been written for characters of color (such as Matt Damon defending Song Dynasty China against monsters in “The Great Wall”), cast with white actors. Most often, whitewashing is done with characters that could have been cast with Asian actors, who have already been almost completely excluded from major film roles in the US.
- Remember that diversity is about more than race. I use “diversity” here because it’s the term most often used in the film industry to discuss race, but that term should be “racial diversity.” True “diversity” includes many other marginalized groups who are underrepresented in western film. We are sorely lacking in disabled and transgender characters, and even more lacking in disabled and transgender characters portrayed by actual disabled and transgender actors. Behind the scenes, our director and writer pool still lacks in racial minority, female, transgender, or disability representation.
If there’s anything we can take from the 2016 film year and the 2017 Oscar nominations, it’s that non-white actors can star in major films; non-white directors can make major films. Not only are they just as likely to be great films worthy of awards, they also will make money.
We’ve shown in 2016 increasing representation in film is not a gamble; it’s appreciated, beneficial, and profitable. So let’s make 2017 and 2018 the year we really commit to true diversity in film. When that happens, we’ll truly celebrate.
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