Oscars 2019 - Is Hollywood really becoming more diverse?

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In the era of #MeToo, #TimesUp and #OscarsSoWhite, it is no surprise that this year’s Academy Awards was mired with controversies before it even began. With pressure mounting on the Academy for more diversity in the nominees and winners, the choice of Kevin Hart to host the ceremony didn’t last long after homophobic tweets arose which prompted Hart to step down from the role. Not exactly the best start...

This year’s Best Picture winner, Green Book, received its own array of mixed reactions. As the Farrelly brothers’ film was announced as the recipient of the night’s final award, several attendees refused to applaud, including Jordan Peele and Spike Lee; the latter attempting to leave the building altogether.  

It’s no surprise that Green Book, a film whose press tour has suffered several bumps along the road - Viggo Mortensen saying the ‘n-word’ at a conference, the revelation of Nick Vallengola’s Islamophobic tweets, and the resurfacing of reports from the 90s that the directors often flashed their fellow cast and crew on set - was a problematic choice to win. In a year marked with firsts for women and minorities, the film with the most controversy surrounding the racial and gender politics of those involved, took home the most prestigious award.

So, what do the Academy Awards actually mean for diversity in the film industry?

Victories for diversity at the Academy Awards

For the past few years, diversity at the Oscars has been a topic of much discussion. At the 2018 awards, we saw some triumphant moments for women, people from BAME backgrounds, and LGBTQ+ people: Greta Gerwig was the fifth woman ever to be nominated for Best Director, Dee Rees was the first black woman and queer person to be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Yance Ford was the first openly trans Academy Award nominee, ever.

This year’s ceremony supposedly followed suit, with the Academy’s recognition of Black Panther, the first superhero movie with a predominantly black cast and crew, making Ruth E. Carter the first African-American to win Best Costume Design, and Hannah Beachler the first African-American to be nominated, and win, in the category of Best Production Design.

It’s clear that things are changing. Still, less than half of the Best Picture winners pass the Bechdel test, where two named female characters have a conversation with each other about something other than a man. A surprisingly sparse amount of these films even feature women saying more than 100 words. The Hurt Locker, which made Kathryn Bigelow the first and only woman to win Best Director, has no women speaking at all, suggesting that female directors/producers/writers doesn’t always mean female-led films.

These figures tell us that there is still a long way to go in achieving parity. While there were victories this year for women, such as a film about periods winning Best Short Documentary, a recent study showed that women only made up 25% of the non-acting nominations, an increase of 2% from last year. Of course, the many ‘firsts’ for marginalised groups that come with each ceremony should be celebrated, but it’s difficult to imagine a time where these Oscar wins and nods are no longer revolutionary, but expected.

Why is change taking so long?

One thing that affects these figures is the group of people who choose what wins and what gets snubbed. In 2014, the panel was shockingly 76% male and 94% white. Attempts to make the jury more diverse have seen an influx of new members, of which in 2018, 31% were women and 16% were people of colour. This signals a step in the right direction for better representation at the Oscars, allowing for films led by women and/or people of colour to have the same chance as any film to get the top awards. Having said this, the choice of Green Book for Best Picture, the film about race relations that’s been dubbed a ‘white saviour’ narrative, over nominees like The Favourite (with female and lesbian protagonists), and Blackkklansman (about a black cop infiltrating the KKK), shows that the Academy still favours the feel-good family drama over the more progressive stories.

Progress is - slowly - being made to promote diversity across the board. The #MeToo movement continues to call out sexual harassment and organisations such as Women in Film and TV are campaigning for more opportunities for women. (Alas, women may be deterred from entering the industry in a post-Weinstein age where sexual assault scandals continue to be unveiled almost daily). After asking every female nominee in the room to stand, Frances McDormand ended her powerful 2018 Oscar acceptance speech with the words ‘inclusion rider’, referring to a clause in an actor’s or filmmaker’s contract which requires a certain level of diversity in the cast and crew of the project. The world of Hollywood may be slowly starting to look like the world that we see everyday, but there are still big steps to be made until we see absolute equality.

Where do we go from here?

As consumers, there are things that we can do too: investing in movements like Time’s Up, supporting women and marginalised communities by paying to watch their films, and using social media to support positive change and call out regressive stereotypes on screen. But the reality is that these changes need to come from the top down. When we turn to journalism, the figures don’t get any more reassuring, as men currently make up between 71-75% of critics writing about films. This is problematic: as Time’s Up activist Brie Larson has observed, films aimed at women and/or the LGBTQ+ and BAME communities are not going to be received in the intended way by a white man. Larson recently took bold action against this bias, requesting a disabled woman of colour, Keah Brown, to interview her for Marie Claire.

This year’s Academy Award milestones should not be ignored. Nor should the positive change that we’ve seen in the past few years be undermined. Change is coming, despite its slow pace - similarly to industries like advertising, where groundbreaking new ads for Gillette and Nike have changed the conversation around gender equality. But now it’s time for those working in the film industry to up their game. After all, diversity sells, representation is imperative, and inclusion benefits everyone.

by Hannah Holway

Hannah is approaching the end of her Film Studies degree at Queen Mary University of London, where she has studied film philosophy and film ethics, among other subjects. She has written reviews for her university’s student magazine and also interviewed actresses and directors such as Julia Ducournau and Lucy Boynton. Upon graduating she is hoping to carry on writing as well as pursuing a career in editorial and publishing.