The struggles of black individuals in the United States have all shared the “attempt to be understood as full complicated human beings”, says Jelani Cobb, professor of African-American Studies in Ava DuVernay’s excellent Oscar nominated documentary, The 13th.
There is nowhere that this is more apparent than in one of America’s greatest institutions, the cinema. The lack of diversity within the industry has dominated the conversation the past few years. It has even tarnished its glittering annual event, the Oscars, with #OscarsSoWhite going viral last year after there were no actors of colour nominated in the four acting categories for the second year in a row.
Diversity has become almost a buzzword for Hollywood’s indifference to difference, and meanwhile articles continue to be published decrying the industry, and their awards, for their uniformity. As David Cox wrote on the Guardian film blog in 2016: “The Oscars may not be anti-black, but they are hideously white.”
The 89th Academy Awards, taking place on February 26, by no means illustrate a colossal change in the industry, but there is more recognition bestowed on films starring, directed and about black individuals. Of the five nominees for best documentary, three are directed by African Americans, while a fourth is by a Haitian filmmaker. In the acting categories, Denzel Washington (Fences), Ruth Negga (Loving), Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), Viola Davis (Fences), Naomi Harris (Moonlight) and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) are all nominated, in addition to British-Indian Dev Patel (Lion).
Pick of the bunch
These examples can be used to argue that the Oscars are embracing diversity. But of course, this may all just display an aberration – one year where the stars aligned and variety befell the ceremony. Both arguments have been made, but what is often lost in the debates is the simple fact that diversity is not solely an awards issue. It is an industry-wide problem.
The films that are awarded by the academy are chosen as the best of that particular year, but with less choice overlooked films can easily be dismissed as not up to the standards of the award votes instead of ignored due to their focus on non-white subjects. Take DuVernay’s Selma. Each year, the Hollywood Reporter publishes anonymous academy members discussing their votes. In 2015, a female academy member commented of Selma’s two paltry nominations (best picture and best original song): “But if the movie isn’t that good, am I supposed to vote for it just because it has black people in it?”
Selma was just one example of a film about the black experience in America, but being directed, produced and starring black individuals, it became a lightening rod for debates about diversity. A positively reviewed film about Martin Luther King’s fight for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, the film was included in many critics’ end of year top ten lists. Awards are always subjective, but when films with less diverse casts and significantly less positive reviews receive more nominations (such as The Theory of Everything), it becomes more difficult to separate voting from politics.
And herein lies the central issue for the academy. While they are able to pick through countless films by white male filmmakers about white male individuals, there are generally only a handful of quality films produced each year with diverse casts and filmmakers. Snubs can be more easily accepted when there is a plethora of films to choose from, but when there are only one or two, all the hopes for a diverse industry get unfairly pinned on to one film (as happened with Selma).
Lives deserve to be told
When Viola Davis accepted her supporting actress award at the BAFTAs in London recently, she mentioned her father, who died of cancer in a McDonalds, asking if his life mattered. She went on to say that playwright August Wilson (Fences is an adaptation of his play) illustrated that “our lives matter as African Americans” and the stories of African Americans “deserve to be told”, echoing Cobb’s comment in The 13th.
The desire to be understood and represented as “full complicated human beings” is shared by women, LGBT individuals, Asian, African, and Hispanic individuals – anyone who doesn’t not fall into the category of the white straight male. Stories have of course been told about these groups, but their real entrance into the mainstream is further hampered by the film industry’s themes, narratives and characters. Too often, Hollywood produces films that rely on stereotypes, such as the prevalence of black characters as servants, slaves, drug addicts, musicians, athletes or criminals.
This year’s nominations may represent a changing tide. Stories in 2017 include that of the African American female scientists who worked at NASA during the space race (Hidden Figures) and a tale of black masculinity that focuses on sexuality and emotion more than societal pressures and systematic racism (Moonlight).
Institutional racism should certainly never be ignored, but defining the experience of an individual by only their race is to misrepresent the complexity of their lives. The white male dominance of Hollywood is so difficult to overcome because it has long been presented as a universal experience by Hollywood. The black experience, to take one example, is not universal, nor should it be presented as such. Only films that expose the socio-historical context of a variety of individuals’ lives and focus on their complexities without resorting to the stereotypes that have persisted in the cinema since its earliest days will truly promote the diversity of human life.
Until La La Land can star two actors of colour, or two women, as its leads, incorporating their particular life experience into the traditional “boy meets girl” romantic narrative, Hollywood will continue to struggle with diversity and the academy will be limited by their award options.