Following two consecutive years of Oscar nominations sans black acting nominees in 2015 and 2016, the hashtags #OscarSoWhite and #HollywoodSoWhite shot to the top of the Twitter-verse. They launched a worldwide discussion about whether Hollywood was truly doing its part to promote diversity onscreen and off. In 2017, a record six black actors were nominated for Oscars, and the 2018 Oscars also had black actors nominated for lead and supporting roles. Not to mention that the 2018 Emmy’s had a 20% year-over-year increase of the number non-white-actor nominees.
While the 2019 Oscars continued to bring diversity, with film nominations for Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, the Mexican film Roma and superhero flick Black Panther, the 2020 Oscar nominations only featured one performer of color across 20 slots, bringing the hashtags back into the spotlight. As if to repent, 2021 saw a record number of people of color being nominated for Oscars – nine out of 20. And yet, that number fell to only four nominations in 2022. So, is enough being done to bring diversity to Hollywood – and maintain it?
Here are three reasons why Hollywood needs to add more diversity to its ranks, and three ways its promotion of diversity might be more than meets the eye.
Hollywood Is Embracing Diversity
Diversity is on the rise onscreen
The 2021 Hollywood Diversity report demonstrated clear gains in the number of lead movie roles played by people of color (43%). The 2022 Oscars also confirm a brightened spotlight on minority actors. Will Smith nabbed Best Actor for his role in King Richard, a film about African-American sports legends Serena and Venus Williams. And Ariana DeBose was the first openly queer woman of color and second Latina to ever win Best Supporting Actress. Looking back, the surprise hit of 2018, the all-Asian film Crazy Rich Asians, also shows that audiences are embracing on-screen diversity. Another case in point, the 2020 Oscar winner for Best Picture, the first-ever non-English-speaking film Parasite.
Even the small screen has been making strides in ethnic diversity in recent years, with major network shows like Fresh of the Boat, “blackish” (and its two spinoffs),One Day at a Time, Empire and the award-winning Atlanta, all of which almost exclusively feature minority casts. In 2018, Sandra Oh was the first actor of Asian descent to ever be nominated for lead actress in a TV drama, and she followed up in 2019 with the historic Golden Globe win.
Premise not prejudice
Hollywood doesn’t advance (or reject) racial agendas – it simply looks for stories with the power to captivate audiences (and turn profits). Proof of this is the Academy Awards recognizing actress Cynthia Erivo portraying Harriet Tubman’s story in 2020 and the fact that South Korean film Parasite won that year’s Oscar for Best Picture. Hollywood is known for taking chances on such diverse stories, even if they broach sensitive matters of race. In 1977, when television’s black viewership was only 10%, ABC produced and screened Roots, a miniseries featuring a mostly black cast, depicting several generations of an American slave family. Beyond being a hit, the show generated nationwide conversation about the uncomfortable realities of America’s history and present.
In that vein, where compelling stories are what drive broadcasting decisions, entertainment journalist Nellie Andreeva writes that the success of television’s ethnically diverse programming is the power of each show’s premise – Empire, Transparent, Cristela, and Issa Rae’s Insecure succeeded not because they are directed toward diverse and/or ethic audiences, but because they draw audiences into new worlds with compelling stories and characters.
Hollywood’s off-camera diversity is increasing too
The lack of diversity in Hollywood’s largest studios and broadcast networks has long been a point of contention, but Hollywood has not received this criticism passively. Most large studios and networks offer diversity programs and college internships intended to increase the share of positions given to screenwriters and directors of color (and the quantity of roles written for minority actors), like NBC/Universal’s Writers on the Verge Program, which have taking writers from obscurity to executive producer status. In keeping with its pledge to increase minority membership, the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made an effort since 2017 to invite an increasing number of new members who are of varied nationality and color. In 2019, the academy invited 842 new members who hailed from 59 countries, and 29% were people of color. In 2021, the academy invited 395 new artists of whom 39% were underrepresented ethnic/racial communities, and 59% were international from 49 countries.
Hollywood Is Too White
Numbers don’t lie
Hollywood casting offices underrepresent people of color. In the United States, ethnic minorities constitute at least 40% of the population, but minority actors nab only 26% of film roles. While the Hollywood Diversity reports do suggest progress, it is slow. According to the 2019 report, only 2 out of 10 lead actors in films were people of color in 2017, and 2.2 out of 10 lead actors in broadcast scripted shows for TV were people of color.
The composition of Hollywood’s executive offices and professional guilds is even less promising. Ninety-four percent of major production studio executives are white, and until 2017, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ membership was 91% white. With both sides of the camera dominated by whites, Hollywood’s overwhelming whiteness is not an imagined problem, but a statistical reality.
Always a bridesmaid, never a bride
Of the small portion of roles allotted to people of color, fewer still are leading roles. Only 23% of films made from 2011 to 2015 featured a black lead. While, in 2020, the number of black leads has risen to 39.7%, it still shows disproportionate representation. Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham points out that even when a black star does score a lead role, it is most often against the backdrop of a white character who facilitates the black character’s – a “white savior,” she calls them. For example, the film Hidden Figures, depicts a black NASA mathematician whose success is sponsored by her benevolent white boss. Similar dynamics occur in the movies The Blind Side, The Help, and 2018’s controversial Oscar winner, Green Book, among others. This begs the question of why Hollywood can’t seem to let its black heroes stand alone.
Some roles are written for ethnically diverse characters. Unfortunately, by and large, Hollywood prefers white actors to play them. Whitewashing has a long history in American film, from Mickey Rooney’s Japanese caricature, Mr. Yunioshi, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Jonny Depp’s take on Tonto, John Wayne’s Native American sidekick. Whitewashing takes more forms than just appointing white actors to roles written for non-white characters.
In films based on true stories, the story’s real-life inspiration, if an ethnic minority, is often portrayed as white onscreen. Ben Affleck’s Argo completely erased protagonist Antonio Mendez’s Chicano heritage. John Ma, the blackjack virtuoso of Chinese descent upon whom the film 21 is based, onscreen becomes Ben Campbell, a generic, Hollywood-approved white guy.
The Bottom Line: When considering the distribution of work in Hollywood among ethnic minorities, one might be quick to conclude that American entertainment is one of the country’s last vestiges of institutionalized racism. But are numbers the bottom line of every story? You decide.