It was a year ago that Lupita Nyong’o, shortly before winning the Academy Award for best supporting actress, gave a speech about what she called “dark beauty.”
Nyong’o, who so dazzled Hollywood and the Oscar-viewing public through awards season, spoke tenderly of receiving a letter from a girl who had been about to lighten her skin before Nyong’o’s success, she said, “saved me.” The letter struck Nyong’o because she recognized herself in that girl: “I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin.”
“And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey,” concluded Nyong’o, accepting an award at the Black Women in Hollywood luncheon.
The Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised actress was a central part last year to an Academy Awards flush with faces uncommon to the Oscar podium. There was Ellen DeGeneres, a proud lesbian, hosting. There was the first Latino, Alfonso Cuaron, winning best director. There was the black filmmaker Steve McQueen hopping for joy after his 12 Years a Slave won best picture.
What a difference a year makes.
This year’s Oscars repeat a stubborn pattern that has plagued the Academy Awards throughout its history: Whenever change seems to come, a frustrating hangover follows. “Every 10 years, we have the same conversation,” Spike Lee, a regular witness to the sporadic progress, has said. A year after Chris Rock hosted the 2005 awards show, which featured nods for Morgan Freeman, Don Cheadle, Jamie Foxx and Sophie Okonedo, the ‘06 nominees followed with only Terrence Howard.
Seldom have such fits and starts been starker than this Oscars, coming a year after a richly diverse Oscar crop. In Sunday’s Academy Awards, all 20 acting nominees are white, a result that prompted some to declare that they would boycott this year’s ceremony. The lack of nominations for Selma director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo were a particular flashpoint, viewed by many as unjust oversights not only because they merited honoring, but because their absences furthered an ignoble Oscar history.
“I was surprised but then I wasn’t,” said Darnell Hunt, a UCLA professor and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, who co-authored a 2014 diversity report on the film and TV industries. “What we saw in terms of the nominations this year was business as usual. What we got was more or less an accurate reflection of the way the industry is structured and the way the academy is populated.”
An Associated Press survey of the academy’s voting history since the first Academy Awards in 1929 shows gradual progress but not nearly at a rate to match the ever-increasing diversity of the American public. In those 87 years, nine black actors have won Oscars, four Latinos and three Asians, a record that doesn’t even speak to other categories like best director, where only one woman (Kathryn Bigelow) has won.
The number of non-whites to be nominated for best actor or best actress has nearly doubled in just the last two decades, but the 9.4 percent of non-white acting nominees over the academy’s history is about four times less than the percentage of the non-white population.
Not all of this can be laid at the film academy’s feet, but some of it can. The 6,000-plus membership of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was found to be 94 percent white and 77 percent male in a 2012 Los Angeles Times investigation. Since becoming president of the academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs has worked to diversify the academy’s ranks, though change comes slowly considering membership is for life.
“In the last two years, we’ve made greater strides than we ever have in the past toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization through admitting new members and more inclusive classes of members,” Isaacs told the AP shortly after nominations were announced. “And, personally, I would love to see and look forward to see a greater cultural diversity among all our nominees in all of our categories.”
But the academy is a reflection of the film industry; it can only reward the films that get made. What this year’s all-white acting nominees did was lay bare the enormous, hulking iceberg of the movie business’ diversity problems.
The UCLA diversity report released last year after eight years of research put numbers to an often amorphous issue. It was arguably the most comprehensive such study, and it found the underrepresentation of minorities and women throughout film and TV, from board rooms to talent agencies.
“White males have dominated things for so long that it’s been hard to image an alternative that would produce or be open to producing the types of projects that are likely to enlist more people of color or women. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, this vicious cycle that produces the same type of stuff over and over again.,” says Hunt. “It’s hard to blame any single institution. It’s not all the networks. It’s not all the studios. It’s not all the talent agencies. But together, the way they all do business, combines to create this stalemate where we just don’t get past where we are right now.”
What’s particularly galling for many of those working to change Hollywood is that minorities are among its most passionate customers. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, Hispanics made up 25 percent of moviegoers in 2013, considerably more than their 17 percent share of the population.
“They acknowledge the demographic. They understand our participation rate. They continue to market these projects to the community, but never with the community’s identity or building a base of A-lister talent,” says Felix Sanchez, president of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.
Sanchez has seen “busts of diversity” come and go, like the attention that came and went with Ricky Martin’s 1999 Grammy performance. But even though the film industry sits in a town rich in Hispanics, 150 miles from the Mexico border, whites are often cast in top Latino roles. Ben Affleck played Tony Mendez in Argo and, more recently, the casting of Catherine Zeta-Jones as a Colombian drug dealer drew criticism.
“Who’s in charge of that image making?” says Sanchez. “So much of it is left in the hands of people who don’t have any kind of commitment to authenticity to the community at large.”
Combating such an entrenched, systematic problem isn’t easy; prejudice is nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
“There’s no front door to knock on. There’s nothing but side doors,” says Sanchez. “At some point, either there’s change or there’s a revolt amongst the viewers of simply not participating with entertainment that’s not reflective or inclusive of Latino images in a contemporary way.”
Hunt hopes that by studying diversity objectively, the data will reveal “the bottlenecks” that are stifling advancement. That includes findings that show more diverse projects make more money at the box office and earn better TV ratings. He knows the one thing Hollywood will respond to: the bottom line.
But frustration is mounting. Another year’s worth of research, to be released later this month by UCLA, Hunt says shows no significant change.
Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative, calls the lack of progress in the industry “egregious.” The school analyzed the 500 top-grossing films at the U.S. box office in recent years, finding that in 2013, African-Americans represented 10.8 percent of all speaking characters, Hispanics 4.2 percent and Asians 5 percent. Between 2007 and 2012, the 565 directors of the top 500 films included only 33 black filmmakers, and just two of them black women. In the top-100 grossing films each year from 2002 through 2012, only 4.4 percent had women directors.
“Hollywood does not think diversity is commercial,” Smith said. “The numbers speak loudly and clearly about who is valued and who isn’t.”
With studies finding so little progress, Smith proposes the industry adopt a modified version of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which stipulates that teams must interview minorities for vacant coaching jobs, to give greater transparency to the hiring process. She also urges A-list stars to add a rider in their contracts asking for diversity in casts when sensible to the story.
Not everyone agrees. Lionel Chetwynd, an Oscar-nominated writer and an academy member, argued against Al Sharpton’s post-nominations call for a task force. (Said Sharpton: “The movie industry is like the Rocky Mountains, the higher you get, the whiter it gets.”)
“Enforced ‘diversity’ will undermine the very mission of AMPAS,” Chetwynd wrote in an Op-Ed. “As new filmmakers and craftspeople achieve new levels of excellence, the face of the academy will change as it should, to the meter of its time, the pace of its art.”
The one thing that is definitely improving is the volume level. The uproar over the Oscar nominations only added to a swelling cacophony in the last year.
Saturday Night Live was shamed into diversifying its cast. The Ridley Scott Moses epic Exodus: Gods and Kings was slammed for casting white leads as Egyptians. The leaked Sony emails embarrassed executives for jokes about President Obama’s presumed taste in movie. Chris Rock, as good a commentator on race relations as we have, penned a thoughtful essay on what he called “a white industry.”
“How many black men have you met working in Hollywood? They don’t really hire black men,” wrote Rock. “But forget whether Hollywood is black enough. A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough? You’re in L.A, you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans.”
Why does all this matter? It isn’t just an issue of equal opportunity, though it is that. It’s because when people aren’t reflected in culture, when they don’t see themselves on screens, behind cameras or on the Oscar stage, they feel invisible and voiceless. Hollywood would do well to remember that young girl who wrote to Nyong’o, and hope to inspire a flood of such letters.