Looking at the nominees in this year’s Oscars, it’s almost unthinkable that in 2015 and 2016, not a single person of colour was nominated. This Sunday, five ceremonies on from the hashtag #Oscarssowhite uproar, the winners will be picked from a lineup that breaks hard with tradition – and the award’s dire record on diversity.
This year, for the first time, not one, but two women are nominated for the Best Director award: Chloe Zhao for Nomadland, and Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman. Zhao is also the first woman of colour to be nominated in the category.
The gravitas of this isn’t obvious until you realise that in all of Oscar’s history, only five women have been nominated for the best director award in total. That’s five nominations against 444 male nominations for the category, making it only 1% of the total. And only one of those women has ever won: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010, a whole 81-years after the Oscars’ started.
While some believe that achieving gender equality at the Oscars can only happen by having more female directors in the first place, the statistics are enough to make you wonder why women bother entering the field at all, given their near non-existent recognition by the profession. It also begs the question of why so much reverence is attached to an award that has done so little to change the status quo.
How can the biggest industry of visual storytellers in the world – Hollywood – tell stories of America, and indeed, the world, when it has consistently failed to represent anything close to the 53 per cent of women and 40 percent of minorities in the country?
In 2016, after the second year of all-white acting nominations in the Best Actor and Best Actress categories (10 each), people were enraged on social media. The likes of Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee – who was snubbed in the Best Picture and Director categories for his 1989 film Do the Right Thing – boycotted the awards.
The repeat not only laid bare Oscar’s long-standing lack of representation, but it also showed just little the Academy took notice of the issues raised the year before.
Back in 2002, the future for a more progressive Oscars looked bright. It was the year that Halle Berry became the first woman of colour to win Best Actress and she famously cried: “every nameless, faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.” Nearly two decades on, she remains the only black woman and woman of colour to have triumphed.
Talk of change came again in 2017, after the Best Picture win for Moonlight, a film about a young, black gay man growing up in Miami, won. But in 2020, the roll call disappointed once again: only one person of colour nominated for both acting categories – Cynthia Erivo for the film Harriet.
Soon after the 2016 uproar, the Academy committed to improving the diversity of its members, all of whom has voting rights, is overwhelmingly white and male and averages at 63-years-old.
In an attempt to double its female members and members of colour by the end of 2020, the latest annual membership invite went to 819 new artists and executives, of which 45% were women, 36% ethnic minorities and 49% internationals, the most radical lot yet. Overall, members of colour doubled from just eight per cent in 2016 to 16 percent, while women still make up less than a third of all voters.
But some think the improvement has already impacted this year’s nominees. From Riz Ahmed for Sound of Metal to Steven Yeun for Minari to Viola Davis for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, as well as Andra Day for The United States vs. Billie Holiday, nine people of colour make up the best acting categories.
It’s also a notable year for themes on disability. Alongside accusations of “white-washing” in its stories, critics of Hollywood have long protested at the way disabled characters are made “invisible”. Marlee Matlin was the only disabled actress to have ever won an Oscar for her leading role in Child of a Lesser God in 1986.
This year, three nominated films take on the subject of disability. One of them, Crip Camp, a film about a youth camp’s role in the US disability rights movement, is executive produced by Marlee Matlin herself.
In Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed plays a drummer facing deafness; his co-star Paul Raci, who is deaf in real life and a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) is nominated for Best Supporting Actor. A contender for Best Live Action Short, the film Feeling Through also features a deafblind actor, Robert Tarango.
But given its shocking record and many false starts hailing change, is this year’s Oscars more than just another reflection of an “extraordinary year”, or has the Academy finally tackled its diversity problem?
There’s no doubt the pandemic obliterated any sense of an “awards season” – the usual press junket luncheons, PR events, and the studios’ lobbying of voters. The glitz and glamour have been pared down to watching films on the couch and seeing films for their quality rather than the buzz.
With cinemas shut down, the traditional Box Office has also made space for other smaller contenders. With big hitters like Dune (Warner Brothers) and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story postponed from last year, streaming platforms have flourished in the form of films on Netflix, such as Mank with 10 Oscar nominations, and indies like Nomadland.
While Mank is undeniably “old Hollywood”, the dominance of streaming platforms, on the whole, propelled by the pandemic, could be the harbinger of a more diverse industry. A Netflix study conducted by The University of Southern California showed that the platform was much better at diversity and inclusion than traditional TV and film. Its proportion of women-led projects is not only higher than the industry average, but 20% of its projects had female directors, and women of colour directors making up 6.3% compared to 2.2% across other channels.
Diversity is also a lucrative choice if not a moral one for Hollywood, which could increase its revenue by $10bn (7%) by improving representation on screen, a report by Mckinsey concluded. This is partly because people of colour made up the most cinema ticket sales in the USA in the top eight of ten 10 movies in theatres. Furthermore, films with the highest proportion of minority cast (at 41-45 per cent in 2019) gained the highest median intake at the box office.
If change is to be lasting, structural overhaul across the board is critical. The fact that 98% of producers and 86% of writers in Hollywood are white means that only the stories they judge to be valuable are written and produced. This is even more so for the decision-makers at the very top, where 91% of studio CEOs are white and 82% male, figures almost identical for senior executives (93% white and 80% male).
But the Academy will have to do a lot more to prove there is no going back. For one, there are still categories where a woman has never won, such as for Best Cinematography, where the first female nominee was Rachel Morrison for Mudbound in 2017. Disabled actors are overwhelmingly overlooked, even in films about disability.
One thing is for sure, the Oscar nod matters, those who are named or win, are afforded a wealth of opportunities, including promoting diversity in future projects, as per Marlee Matlin.
Only time will tell if this year’s Oscar portfolio is here to stay, whether it has simply been an ordinary or a giant leap for representation. And of course, more can be drawn on Sunday, when the winners are finally revealed.