It’s awards season in America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has produced its least-White list of nominations. Taking a step away from the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of 2015 and 2016, in which no people of color were even included in the nominations, the Academy is honoring seven actors of color this year.
The film industry has had a problem with under-representation for a long time. Since 1965, there have only been 19 years in which more than one black person was nominated for an Oscar Award, and only eight of those years did a black nominee take home the award, according to a New York Times analysis of the Academy Awards Database.
Under-representation becomes even more stark when comparing the number of nominations from various minorities to their percentage within the U.S. population. While blacks make up 13.2 percent of the population, they only receive 7 percent of nominations. These nominations also tend to go to select actors, such as big names such as Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington. Between 1987 and 2015, 45 black actors were nominated for awards, but 11 went to Freeman and Washington.
The problem is even worse for Hispanic actors, who make up 17.4 percent of the U.S. population but account for only 2 percent of nominees. And while Asians represent only 5.8 percent of the U.S. population, film roles for Asian actors do, in fact, exist. They’re just filled by white actors instead.
Compared to the previous two years, the Academy nominated more actors of color than ever before. “Moonlight,” “Fences” and “Hidden Figures,” are all stories centered around the lives of black people, which certainly helps increase the number of nominations, and wins, available for black actors. And the media has taken note of the spike in nominations for black actors, wondering if #OscarsSoWhite is over now that black actors are being nominated. Yet Dev Patel, the first Asian actor to be nominated in a decade, garnered little mention in articles regarding the shift in the nominations.
It's weird to me how many media outlets refer to "6 black actors nominated" instead of "7 actors of color," which would include Dev Patel
— Kyle Buchanan (@kylebuchanan) January 25, 2017
April Reigns, the creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, agreed, explaining that while films this year are more black, they aren’t more diverse.
— April (@ReignOfApril) January 24, 2017
— April (@ReignOfApril) January 24, 2017
“Everyone is saying the Oscars are more diverse this year. No they’re not. They’re blacker, but where are the Latinx movies, the LGBTQIA movies? The Asian American/Pacific Islander community has had a worse year. We can’t forget [them] just because we have Black nominees this year. #OscarsSoWhite is about everybody,” Reigns said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
True diversity isn’t just more non-white nominations, it’s a veritable mix of minority identities. This isn’t to say that black films aren’t critically important. They are, but so are Asian films, Latino films, films with LGBTQIA characters, and films with protagonists with disabilities. Representation matters, especially for kids.
Of course, this doesn’t fall squarely on the academy, but the industry as a whole. Writers, directors, and those at the Academy voting on films have a hand in the process of building a more diverse Hollywood. As Viola Davis succinctly put it at the 2015 Emmy Awards, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
Hollywood, it seems, is starting to see the financial incentive of writing and casting minority actors, if not the moral one. NPR called it the Tyler Perry paradox: Racial minorities go to the movies more frequently than whites do and, unsurprisingly, they turn out for films with minorities in them. According to the UCLA report 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report: Busine$$ as Usual?, films with 41-50% minority casts perform best at the box office.
Finances alone, Hidden Figures blew Rogue One out of the water. So far, the film has earned $68 million in the box office, defying the UCLA’s findings about majority minority films. Perhaps most importantly, the film prominently features black women, a demographic that is often left out. Many hope that this is just the beginning of a movement supporting more diverse films, and not just a break in the cinematic monotony.