By, Jamila O’Hara
At first glance, the 2017 Academy Awards may appear to stand in stark contrast with the 2016 and 2015 Oscars. A pool of nominees featuring Denzel Washington, Mahershala Ali, Dev Patel, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Naomie Harris, and Ruth Negga, in combination with a selection of films including Lion, Hidden Figures, Fences, and Best Picture winner Moonlight, seems indicative of a significant shift towards progress since last awards season. The 2015 Oscars, of course, marked the emergence of the prominent #OscarsSoWhite movement after it was revealed that the year’s crop of nominees for the four acting categories was comprised solely of white actors and actresses; through this glaring lack of diversity, the Academy had overlooked the accomplishments of many talented actors and filmmakers of color for the second year in a row. The Hollywood Reporter shared that, prior to 2014, there had not been an all-white group of nominees for the four acting categories since 1998.
Despite some disagreement on the approach that the #OscarsSoWhite movement took to address this issue, it is evident that the hashtag effectively created conversation in Hollywood about issues such as representation and inclusion. After two years of boycotts, discussion, and several apologies from the Academy, it would seem that the primary goal of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag has been achieved. The most recent Oscars included a much more diverse array of contenders, correct?
As positive as this newfound diversity is, the painful reality is that it all too vividly illuminates the persistent lack of nominee heterogeneity in previous years. Until 2017, there had never been more than two African-American nominees in a singular category; furthermore, this January was the first time in Academy Award history that each acting category has had at least one black nominee. Nonetheless, there remains an obvious shortage of Hispanic and Asian actors, actresses, and directors within this comparatively diversified pool of nominees. For example, 2016 films such as Korean-American director Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night and Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, were overlooked by the Academy despite receiving positive reviews and considerable acclaim. Although this past year witnessed several movies about the African-American experience, there was still a lack of narratives specifically reflecting the experiences of members of other cultures. Furthermore, several racial groups were still victims of cultural appropriations and stereotyping in film. Although the Academy responded to criticism by inviting new over 600 new members — 41% people of color and 46% women — to join its Oscars voting group, the Academy’s current demographics are still dominated by white men. Representation for women and people of color in the Academy is still significantly underwhelming: according to USA Today, the percentages of females and people of color in the Academy’s voting group are approximately 27% and 11% respectively.
The 2017 Oscars has made it apparent that the creation of significant, enduring change cannot merely be a defense against criticism; such change must stem from genuine recognition of the fact that art should reflect the true diversity of our society. It is too early to predict how these diversification efforts will affect the upcoming cinema and awards seasons; however, Hollywood’s ongoing whitewashing tendencies make it all the more evident that there is still much more work that needs to be done. 2017 films such as The Great Wall and The Ghost in the Shell, which are set in China and Japan respectively, received criticism for casting white actors in roles that many believe would have been more appropriate for actors of Asian descent. These instances suggest that whitewashing and erasure of ethnic minorities are issues that must be addressed in each stage of cinematic production. It is essential that filmmakers and casting directors hire actors appropriately to ensure that members of particular ethnicities have the opportunity to genuinely portray their cultural experiences through film.
Despite the progress that has been made in the film industry over the past year, the underrepresentation of certain racial and ethnic groups in mainstream media and cinema is a deep-rooted issue that requires far more work, conversation, and advocacy. As we look ahead to upcoming 2017 films and the 2018 Academy Awards.