Oscars’ Beginning to Yield Much-Needed Change

“When film and television privilege white stories over other stories, they reinforce a racial hierarchy that devalues people of color. Not only do dramatic racial disparities indicate employment discrimination in Hollywood, the underrepresentation of people of color in film and television can also have wider societal consequences … When Audiences never see actors of color in major roles, they are less likely to perceive them as on equal footing with whites. Inversely, when whites and their stories are celebrated more than their fair share, audiences begin to associate significance, admiration and power with that group over others.” – Nancy Wang Yuen, Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism

The Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday marked a paradigm shift for an industry that has struggled with diversity. Of the four acting awards, three were won by people of color: Mahershala Ali, Regina King and Rami Malek; Black Panther’s Ruth Carter was the first African American to win an Oscar for Costume Design and Hanna Beachler the first to win for Production Design; and the writing team behind BlacKKKlansman included two Black artists, Spike Lee and Kevin Willmot.

The industry made significant steps in the last few years.

Following two years of Academy Awards voting that produced no acting nominees of color, the National Urban League responded with blistering criticism. In a 2016 letter to then-President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I pointed out that the overwhelmingly white, male, and older membership of the Academy dismally failed to reflect the vibrant creative filmmaking community.

At the time, the Academy was 94% white, 77% male, 86% age 50 or older, and had a median age of 62.

Activist April Reign created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in 2015, but the industry resisted change and when the following year produced no acting nominees of color, pressure – including our demand for a clear and specific blueprint for change – intensified.

Fortunately, our efforts produced results, and the Academy changed its membership rules.

The class of members admitted in June 2016 comprised 46% women, and 41% people of color. The June 2017 class comprised 39% women and 30% were people of color. In 2018. 49% of new members were women and 38% were people of color.

The percentage of voting members of the academy who are people of color has doubled since 2015, from 8% to 16%.

That’s still far below the 27% of the U.S. population that identify as non-white, but it is a welcome development.

Asked if lack of racial diversity is still an issue in Hollywood, April Reign answered, “Absolutely yes.”

“Until we are no longer having these conversations about firsts in 2019,until we see everyone having the opportunity, whether it’s race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, indigenous people in this country. Until we all have an opportunity to see ourselves represented on screen, not just during awards season but all year long, I’ll still continue to talk about #OscarsSoWhite.

“The work continues, but I am thrilled to be able to celebrate the incremental progress that has been made, even if only for a night,” she added.

It’s worth noting that change began only after the Academy instituted specific rules designed to increase diversity. A vague push for diversity after the #OscarsSoWhite campaign began appeared to produce no significant results.

“It seems that the Academy’s board of trustees believes diversity is a problem that will resolve itself,” we wrote in our 2016 letter to the Academy. “The nominations show otherwise.”

As we noted at the time, a lack of diversity in the entertainment industry is a complex issue without a simple solution, and we are well-aware the problem neither begins nor ends with awards nominations. But award nominations translate into box-office success, and the potential for box-office success determines which projects are greenlighted. Black Panther, with a nearly all-Black cast and a Black director, broke box-office records for 2018.

We hope its success, both critically and financially, bodes well for the future of diversity in American cinema.

Marc Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League.

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