Imagining An Equitable Hollywood
There have been two major takeaways after this year’s 95th Academy Awards ceremony:
1) The historic wins of Everything Everywhere All At Once and it’s mostly Asian cast signal a monumental breakthrough for diversity in Hollywood, and 2) Angela Bassett, an iconic Black actress, was robbed and her loss demonstrates Hollywood’s commitment to overlook people of color at the Oscars. In many ways, these two things are inextricably linked. For Angela to lose to Jamie Lee Curtis, the only white lead cast member in EEAAO, illustrates how Hollywood elevates whiteness even within diverse casts. That in addition to the anonymous Oscar ballot articles provides insight into the resentment Oscar voters have around what many see as “forced” diversity in Hollywood. And this is all despite the fact that in reality, minorities are still underrepresented in all aspects of entertainment media.
After the massive protests that erupted in 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, many studios promised change in their hiring and recruitment and for many POC it felt like opportunities to break into Hollywood through fellowships, training programs, and grants were finally being afforded to them. But 2022 heralded a backlash to the wave of DEI initiatives across all sectors of business and Hollywood was no different. The dirty little truth that no one seems willing to name, is that for us to move toward equity, some people will have to relinquish power and privilege. It is not just about increasing access or providing resources and mentorship. Some people will have to move out of the way to make space for change. And under the new leadership of Janet Yang, The Academy could be at the forefront of that change. Let’s imagine what a more equitable Hollywood could look like.
People of color have always had a tumultuous relationship with film as many of the first breakout films were propaganda machines like Birth of a Nation, designed to create narratives of white supremacy and colored ignorance. But in 1940, at the 11th Academy Awards ceremony, Hattie McDaniels became the first African-American and person of color to win an Oscar. If we take Hattie McDaniels’s win as the point when people of color stopped being systemically kept out of Oscar contention, we can use that as a timeline for our vision. What would a decade of concerted action to achieve equity in The Academy look like? And how would that action ripple throughout Hollywood?
What if only people of color could be nominated for the acting and director categories for one decade? When Jamie Lee Curtis began her awards season run for EEAAO, one of the first questions to arise, was why newcomer and breakout performer, Stephanie Hsu, was not being nominated for her role opposite Michelle Yeoh in the same movie. While Curtis is an icon in her own right, she’s never been up for these major acting awards and it is understandable why she would seize this opportunity for recognition. But it did beg the question, did Curtis ever consider stepping aside or pushing for her co-star to be nominated instead?
Achieving equity requires that some people have to let go of power and empower those who have been marginalized. If The Academy required that only people of color could be nominated in acting and directing categories for one decade, how would that shift the demographics of not just The Academy but Hollywood as a whole?
First up; studios. While some smaller studios like A24 and Focus Features have become mainstays in the Oscar game, the truth is most Oscar-winning films come from legacy studios like Paramount, MGM, and Universal. If these studios knew that their chances to be nominated were determined by the racial demographics of who is eligible to win, they would have to invest in building a roster of POC directors and actors to fill these roles and not just in marginal ways. Many of the current studio models for building diversity rely on people of color to apply to a few programs with a limited timeframe of support and then they may get hired by studios usually in small roles where pay is subsidized through outside funds. The looming WGA strike has brought this into stark clarity for many with writers of color, in particular, noting how pay structures have broken down as more POC are breaking into the business.
And even for those with the skills at hand, getting films greenlit by studios often requires hustling to get stars attached or convince studios that an audience exists (despite statistics that show that diverse casting yields higher box office returns). Studios that know their opportunities for awards consideration will be based on the racial demographics of their directors and actors will lead to the greenlighting of more POC-led films.
Next up, directors. The simple truth of Hollywood is that people work with who they know. If you’ve listened to producers like Issa Rae or directors like Ava Duvernay and Ryan Coogler, you know that their sets are inclusive because they have built up networks of talented POC designers and crew members. If Oscar-eligible directors can only be people of color, that will trickle down to who is hired to execute these films. This year Ruth E. Carter became the first Black woman to win more than one Oscar and the only other person to achieve that honor in a non-acting category was Russell Williams II for sound design. Creating a mandate for directors of color opens up opportunities for crew and designers of color to work on films that will be up for Oscar consideration and take home wins.
Actors. This one will definitely get some pushback. So often when we talk about diversity at the Oscars, the first place we look is what actors are nominated. Because they are the most visible piece of the work, we’re often caught up in this idea of diversity being forced upon us when people of color are cast in roles that the mainstream does not see as typical. But what we often do not realize, is that so much of what we regard as “typical” is shaped by what has been presented to us in our media. And while the Oscars has done much to open the opportunity for more types of films to get Oscars, there is still a lot of stagnation in what is considered Oscar worthy, and even moreso when the project stars people of color.
For example, before Moonlight Barry Jenkins made Medicine for Melancholy, a quiet film headed by Wyatt Cenac. The film depicted a daylong date between a young Black woman and a Black man where they walked around San Francisco discussing their lives and dissecting their relationship to Blackness and community, and in the end, falling in love. This type of film starring two white people would have been considered Oscar fodder but it mostly flew under the radar during that awards season. By honoring films starring only people of color, we open the door to what kinds of films are considered Oscar-worthy and open up roles that show people of color in the full totality of who they are. And just as a numbers game, Denzel, Angela, and Viola can only be in so many movies per year so studios and directors are going to have to look beyond the few actors of color who seem to be nominated every other year.
And finally, The Academy itself. Every year when people of color are nominated and lose or only one or two are nominated at all, social media asks what does the voting body of The Academy look like? In 2016, following the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, The Academy made a push for equity vowing to double its numbers of women and people of color, moving those who had not been active in the industry for over a decade to Emeritus status and recruiting new members.
Despite these efforts, The Academy is still 81% white and 67% male. For comparison, America as a whole is around 75% white and slightly less than 50% male. And to become a voting member of The Academy, you still have to be sponsored by two current voting members or be nominated. So how would a mandate for POC nominees change The Academy? Quite simply, it is the quickest, most effective way to ensure that The Academy welcomes new diverse members.
If this policy were enacted, in one decade The Academy could potentially welcome up to 250 new members who would all be people of color from a pool of nominated actors and directors. This doesn’t even include the people who those newly inducted members could then sponsor. Imagine the ripple effect that would have through The Academy. Even after a decade, the potential for what is considered and recognized for honor within Hollywood would undergo a major shift because the voting body would be irrevocably altered.
This is the ability of policy to move forward equity. This is what it could look like when “allies” step back and relinquish power even for a short period of time. And most importantly, this is the power of imagination. What better place for it to begin? What better place than Hollywood to show us the power of change?