It seems quite astounding that the Oscars announcements of 2020 yet again received condemnation for its lack of diversity in terms of racial, ethnic and gender groups. This is an argument that has been raised year after year for decades and gained particular potency in the last five. It has resonated throughout the film industry as a whole, yet this year in the BAFTA awards no people of colour were nominated at all and only one for the Oscars.
The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag entered the trending Twitter sphere of 2015 and has been resurrected every year since. Even if we disregard the long history of underrepresentation in the Academy Awards, five years of outcry is surely enough time to begin to see real change. It seems every few years or so we see a figure, from an underrepresented group, claim an Oscar and we think ‘this is it, it is finally changing’. In 2001 Hallie Berry accepted her Oscar said ‘…this is for every nameless faceless woman of color, that now has a chance because this door has now been opened.’ But was it? Since, no women of color have won Best Actress.
Whilst it is true that since the Academy Awards began in 1929 the representation of non-white male actors has improved but that smattering of representation was rare. In 2016, when #OscarsSoWhite took fame, The Washington Post put together some rather informative graphs on representation of non-white actors. It showed that between 1975-1981 not one actor of colour was nominated. Post this ‘white-out’ there was a boost in representation, followed by another severe drop in 2015 culminating in two years of all-white nominations. This prompted protests and boycotts of the 2016 Oscars. Since 2016 there seemed to have been better representation for people of colour as films such as Moonlight, Get Out, Black Panther, Fences, Hidden Figures and more received nominations or wins for various categories. Moonlight which follows the life of a young African American, taking best picture over La La Land. But it still was not enough, and this year, that precedent dropped again.
For female directors, the outlook isn’t much better, with only five women ever to be nominated and one winning, Katheryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker 2010. In 2018 Natalie Portman famously introduced the Nominees for the Best Director at the Golden Globes with ‘Here are the all-male nominees’.
So why? As many of us press our faces into our hands, groaning as ONE nomination for a person of colour, Cynthia Erivo for Harriet came in and no nominations for female directors, despite some worthy candidates of 2020. Why is this still an issue?
How does the Oscars work?
Those who do not believe that the Oscars is guilty of misrepresentation may sing the familiar tune that Oscars is judged on talent alone regardless of race, gender and so on. This distracting and dismissive argument says more about the utopian ideal that is not currently in our grasp than fairly understanding the scope of the issue. Judging all entries as equal sounds logical, but the crux of the issue is the films by underrepresented groups are not being properly considered nor fairly represented in the first place. Perhaps entrenched prejudiced ideals are still at work under the surface.
Membership – Briefly, awards such as the Oscars are made up of members, roughly 6,000 for the Oscars. Members are industry professionals and represent one section of the awards, such as Best Actor, Best Picture, Best Screenplay according to their industry specialism. These members are given the selections and basically vote to select nominees. The issue here is that most of these members are white-males and thus the membership pool does not sufficiently represent colour, gender or ethnic minority.
Voting – Members are able to vote on films without watching all of them and therefore a shortlist can be drawn up without the proper consideration of all entries. This year, Vanity Fair called out the Oscar’s on its ‘Little Man problem’ as the Oscar-worthy film Little Women was simply not being watched by many male voters. When the Oscars cohort of voters is male dominated, is it any wonder that five women in total have only been nominated for best director with this sort of attitude? As Issa Rae retorted whilst hosting the release of the 2020 nominees for Best Director, ‘Congratulations to those men.’
Thus when a system is dictated by one group of people, it is not that surprising that that group dominates and wins those awards.
What changes have been made?
In 2016 the Oscars vowed to overhaul its membership system to include a more diverse array of members. According to CNBC ‘As of 2019, its membership is now 32% female and 16% people of color, up from 25% and 8%, respectively, in 2015, the Academy told CNBC.’ However, this does not fairly represent the diversity within each branch controlling the individual category nominations.
Some have suggested that award shows to be liable to legal action if they aren’t representative of all ethnic groups. Further proposals of mandatory viewing of all films, more diverse memberships and voting systems alongside a cap on Oscar promotional spending have all been suggested to help the system become fairer.
However, although the Oscars have said they are making changes and perhaps those are in place. It seems there is still a long way to go. It is very clear that, if yet again they have churned out another list of nominees that fails to fairly represent industry members from all ethnic and gender groups, that it is simply not good enough.