The Academy Has Awoken

Last year’s Academy Awards caused enormous controversy due to a lack of racial diversity amongst the nominees for acting awards. While the #OscarsSoWhite movement called for a greater appreciation for people of colour (PoC) in film, many others argued that the reason people of colour weren’t nominated for Oscars is simply that there weren’t any quality performances by people of colour. The truth is that both sides were correct, but both missed the nuance that the reason that PoC were not nominated for Oscars is that there were very few quality roles written for PoC, and racially neutral roles were given to white people. Thus, although the Academy overlooked many key PoC, it was not to blame so much as the movie industry as a whole. However, it seems that screenwriters and casting directors have had a wake up call, judging by this year’s acting nominees.

In terms of diversity, the 89th Academy Awards marks a big step forward as the most diverse Oscars in a decade, matching the 79th Awards with seven nominations for PoC in the acting categories. And for the first time ever, three PoC have been nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category, not to mention that Barry Jenkins has become only the fourth black director ever to be nominated for a Best Director award for Moonlight. I could continue to list the numerous historic achievements of PoC in this years Oscars, but it is far more interesting to investigate what has changed in a year that has caused this valuable spike in diversity.

The most important element is that key players in the movie industry have realised the importance of writing roles for, casting, and hiring PoC. The #OscarsSoWhite movement forced filmmakers and studios to notice what was under their noses the whole time: PoC make up a large percentage of the global population. This is significant largely because it means that there are many qualified and capable PoC looking for work in the film industry, who could be adding value to films if given the opportunity. Many white producers and directors have generally been inclined to hire crews that see the world from the same perspective that they do and therefore have often hired crews that reflect their own skin colour, language and even sex. This is generally a subconscious decision made in fear of ‘the other’. However, race has now become a very conscious consideration in the hiring process. When hiring someone, producers are now forced to ask themselves, “Have I chosen this person just because he/she is white?” And more often than necessary, the answer is a resounding yes. The fact that this decision is now a conscious one has led to much more inclusion of PoC in the filmmaking process.

But there is still a long way to go. The size of the population of PoC also points to a major demographic that would like to see itself represented in mainstream media, especially film. People appreciate seeing themselves in the movies they watch, and are far more likely to enjoy a film to whose characters they relate. For white people, this has always been easy. Pick any teen fiction book-to-film adaptation and the protagonist is a pale-skinned young adult. Watch the latest action movie and you are bound to see a muscular white man saving the day. And don’t get me started on Nicholas Sparks films, and the like, each featuring a couple whose skin tones match the cauliflower I am busy cooking. Thus, as white people, we are able to see ourselves in almost any film we watch. We are able to point to the heros of most films and say “That could be me”.

PoC do not have the same privilege, and often only see themselves in characters that are necessarily PoC. In this year’s Oscar pool the PoC that we are presented with are struggling, poor African Americans in Fences, a black woman fighting to marry the man of her choice in Loving, a lost Indian boy in Lion, a drug dealer and an abusive mother in Moonlight and a mathematician who is subject to racial discrimination in Hidden Figures. And while all of these roles are valuable and portrayed with excellent skill, they are all roles that are required to be filled by PoC. This points to a harsh truth: when a racially neutral character is not required by context to be a PoC, he/she rarely ever is. For example, Damien Chazelle’s frontrunner, La La Land, is set in post-racial America, yet all of the characters just so happen to be white. Perhaps this points to how much easier it is for white people to gain success in the industry than for PoC. I long for the day when we will see PoC playing characters similar to those that are so easily bestowed on white people.
At the end of the day, only time will tell whether racial inclusion for actors is here to stay and whether it will improve to the point where PoC are cast in racially neutral roles. It is frighteningly possible that this year’s inclusion of PoC in the Academy Awards was just a phase designed to appease audiences, and that next year will see a return to #OscarsSoWhite. However, I am enormously hopeful, especially given the fact that the head of the Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, herself is a woman of colour who is committed to diversity, despite the fact that she is unable to control opportunities within the industry. I tentatively predict that next year’s Oscars will see a pool of nominees that is similarly diverse to this year’s, and that inclusion of PoC in film is to become a reality rather than a dream. I look forward to many more films dominated by PoC and completely devoid of the white faces to which we have grown so accustomed.

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