How The Oscars’ Diversity Problem Goes Far Beyond The Academy

Entertainment / Movies
Posted on January 26, 2016 by Ben Taylor

It had been going so well. In 2014, the Academy Awards rolled out a (somewhat) diverse list of nominees, including Steve McQueen (director), Chiwetel Ejiofor (lead actor) and Barkhad Abdi (supporting actor). Lupita Nyong’o (supporting actress) and John Ridley IV (screenwriter) were also nominated, each winning Oscars for their contributions to 12 Years a Slave.

Fast forward two years, however, and the world’s most prestigious movie awards show has gone nearly all white. Last year, African-American director Ava DuVernay (Selma) failed to earn a nod, while the film’s star — David Oyelowo — was also ignored.

This year, the omissions are arguably even more blatant. The critically acclaimed Straight Outta Compton featured standout acting performances (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and strong direction (F. Gary Gray), each from a person of color. But the film was only nominated for its screenplay.

Creed received even better reviews, featuring the directing talents of Ryan Coogler and acting starpower of Michael B. Jordan (previously, Fruitvale Station). The film received only a supporting actor nomination for Sly Stallone.

The kicker? The nominated writers for Compton and supporting actor for Creed are all white.

In fact, among the seven biggest award categories at the 88th Academy Awards — including acting, directing and writing — 95.3 percent of nominees are white.

Compare the current slate of nominees to the demographic makeup of America:

It’s tempting to assign all the blame to voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The exclusive group includes more than 5,000 members of the film industry, mostly old and mostly white. To even be considered for membership, the academy outlines a series of requirements, including quantity and quality of film credits and a history of previous awards. Still, the final decision remains in the hands of various “Branch Executive Committees,” regardless of a candidate’s track record.

Add it up, and the Los Angeles Times estimates 93 percent of academy membership is white (as of 2013), although the academy does not release an official list.

But to pile on to the academy exclusively is to miss the larger, more intractable problem: Hollywood itself is overwhelmingly white.

The PrettyFamous team analyzed their database of celebrities to determine the demographic distribution of the rich and famous. Specifically, they looked at Gracenote data for Hollywood celebrities, from famous actors to directors to screenwriters, leading to a final list of about 26,000 people. Note that this list is not an exhaustive portrayal of the film business, but nonetheless provides a broad picture of the industry, with a particular focus on the biggest names and most frequent award winners.

By their estimates, Hollywood itself is about 80 percent white, at least among the actors, directors and writers routinely considered for big parts and highly publicized assignments.

This reality has ramifications at multiple levels. First, the pool for established Hollywood talent is disproportionately white to begin with, meaning that white film professionals are more likely to star in or contribute to each year’s top films. Second, the academy sources its voters from this pool, creating a self-fulfilling cycle of ever more white voters. Third, a homogenous pool of writers, directors and actors leads to likeminded creators, with fewer outside perspectives and less appetite for risk.

Finally, and perhaps most problematic, box office receipts feed off of past success. When the majority of successful films happen to star white actors, filmmakers make even more movies with white actors. There’s a reason we get 13 white, male superhero movies every year, next to just one Fruitvale Station or Straight Outta Compton. And so we return to the unrepresentative breakdown below.

Based on the Hollywood numbers in the chart above, we’d still expect the Oscars to feature about 20 percent people of color across all award categories, which partially justifies the current pushback. The academy got a lot closer in 2014, so what’s gone wrong in 2015 and 2016? To the institution’s credit, the academy pledged to double the number of female and minority members by 2020.

To fix the larger issue, however, Hollywood must fundamentally change its complexion. So long as the Hollywood pool remains disproportionately white, so too will the top films, and, ultimately, the nominees. Even a more diverse academy can’t fix that.

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