Following two consecutive years of Oscar nominations sans black acting nominees (2015-16), the hashtag #HollywoodSoWhite shot to the top of the Twitter-verse. It 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. The 2019 Oscars brings diversity, with film nominations for Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, the Mexican film Roma and superhero flick Black Panther. But do these examples really mean diversity is no longer an issue in Hollywood? Some believe Hollywood needs to increase integration via diversity quotas, but others object to this on grounds of the need to preserve artistic freedom and merit.
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.
Diversity is on the rise onscreen
2017’s Hollywood Diversity report demonstrated clear gains in the number of roles played by minorities and women, with minorities landing 11.4% of all television roles. Television is making strides in ethnic diversity, with major networks featuring shows like Fresh of the Boat, “blackish,” One Day at a Time, Empire and Atlanta, 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 drama, and she followed up in 2019 with the historic Golden Globe win. The surprise hit of the 2018 all-Asian film Crazy Rich Asians also shows that audiences are embracing on-screen diversity.
African American films and actors had a big year at the 2017 Academy Awards and Golden Globes, with nominations for African-American lead actors in Moonlight and Fences. At the Globes, the hip-hop comedy, Atlanta, nabbed awards for Best Television Series (Musical or Comedy) and for best actor in a television series. It’s main creator and actor, Donald Glover, was also nominated for a 2018 Emmy, alongside fellow African-American actors from “blackish,” Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, for best actors in a comedy.
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). Hollywood is known for taking chances on such 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 recent success of television’s ethnically diverse programming is the power of each show’s premise – Empire, Transparent, Cristela, and Issa Rae’s Insecure succeed 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 double female and minority membership by 2020, in 2017, the American Academy of Art and Film invited 774 new members to join their ranks, among them, actors and filmmakers of varied nationality and color. In 2018, the number rose to 928 new members, which will signify that 38% of the Oscars’ governing body’s new class will be composed of people of color, increasing their representation from 13% in 2017 to 16%.
Hollywood Is Too White
Numbers don’t lie
Hollywood casting offices underrepresent people of color. In the United States, ethnic minorities constitute 40% of the population, but minority actors nab only 26% of film roles. While the 2017 Hollywood Diversity report asserted progress, the 2018 report paints a less optimistic picture for the last year, noting that only four women of color were leads in movies in 2017, and white actors were cast in 70.7% of all speaking roles. 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. 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 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 amongst 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.