The Academy’s Lack of Diversity Extends Beyond Colour

 

NOTE: I am one person and I speak on behalf of myself only.  I have tried to foster an inclusive conversation and have touched on issues related to groups of which I am not apart of.  I have done so with the utmost respect intended, so if my phrasing upsets any readers, I wish to extend my apologies in advance.  As a secondary note, I use the term ‘actor’ as a gender neutral term, so when I say, it speaks to either men or women, though when I mention nominations, I use the phrasing employed by the ‘Academy’ to avoid confusion.

 

Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy

The Oscar nominations have been released, and as is often the case, there is an overt homogenous feel to the nominations.  A distinct lack of diversity.  This is not simply about ‘colour’, but rather is about all groups of marginalized people.  As Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things, once said, “There’s really no such as the ‘voiceless’.  There are only the deliberately silence, or preferably unheard.”  It is refreshing to see that ableism is being challenged by films like The Theory of Everything, which was recognized, and that heroes from the LGBT community are being celebrated in films like The Imitation Game, but even when marginalized groups are offered a narrative, it seems as though it is on the terms set out by dominant culture.  Whether it be issues of gender, perceived race, ability, orientation, or any other number of categories, the homogenous voters of ‘The Academy’ seem to be willing to give a voice to only those whose views they are comfortable with and often speak on behalf of marginalized groups, excluding authentic voices and offering a sample of films that fail to reflect the diversity of American society.

 

David Oyelowo, who was passed up by the 'Academy' this year.

David Oyelowo, who was passed up by the ‘Academy’ this year.

Many Americans with African heritage have expressed concern about the lack of representation through the #Oscarssowhite hashtag, which in light of recent events in Ferguson and New York, seems more than reasonable.  Last year the film 12 Years a Slave managed to take home the award for best picture.  The Butler, however, failed to secure a nomination despite receiving significant critical praise.  When films centered on characters with African ancestry do well, it seems as though the Academy will only choose to celebrate one film, as if its quota is filled.  It also seems to be interested only in promoting films whose narrative is safely in the past.  In the case of 12 Years a Slave, viewers have the safety of historical distance with the narrative.  We can say: “Well at least it’s not like that anymore.”  With a film like Selma, however, which failed to secure a best director or any best actor nominations this year, there seems to be a reluctance to embrace the film.  Could this be because the protests that went on in Selma are strikingly similar to the protests that have gone on in Ferguson and New York this past year?  Or that many of those who participated in the protest depicted in the film are still alive today?  Is the film too current? Too relevant?  Perhaps this is why The Fruitvale Station was not nominated last year.  Some might argue that The Butler is simply not as good as those films that were nominated, but the film’s quality is certainly on parity terms with many of them, so why was it left off?  I’m not suggesting that Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Neighbors From Hell (and yes, that is sadly an actual film) get nominated simply because it was directed by a man with African heritage, but there are a host of great films about the experience of Americans with African heritage that have been released this year that have not been recognized.  Dear White People, for instance, was as clever a comedy as anything Woody Allen has released in the last ten years, and though Allen is always sure to secure a nomination when his films come out, Justin Simien’s film failed to get so much as a glance from the Academy.  It’s not as if there is not a lot to choose from, it’s just simply that the Academy does not recognize the merit of these voices.

 

 

Halle Berry, who is to date the only Black woman to secure an Oscar for best lead actress.

Halle Berry, who is to date the only Black woman to secure an Oscar for best lead actress.

Of the voices that are recognized, they are often problematic.  Denzel Washington has offered a number of performances in lead roles that were worthy of an Oscar.  In The Hurricane, he played a man with African heritage who was wrongly convicted of a crime he did not commit.  In Malcolm X he played the titular civil rights leader, and in Remember the Titans and The Great Debaters he played a strong lead character who helped transcend barriers based on perceived race.  Though the latter two performances we on the kitsch side, in both The Hurricane and Malcolm X, Washington offered stellar performances.  Neither earned him an Oscar.  Is this because the Academy doesn’t want to draw attention to the issue of men of colour who are singled out by police and wrongly convicted by the justice system?  Or that they don’t want to celebrate a man of colour who once embraced a violent response to the oppression of people of African descent in America?  Washington has won two Oscar, but both are problematic.  He won an Oscar for supporting actor in the film Glory, but like 12 Years a Slave, this film takes place in the safety of America’s past, well over a 100 years ago.  His other Oscar, for his role in Training Day, saw Washington win best actor for his role as a crooked cop turned drug dealer, a role which serves to reinforce stereotypes of men with African heritage who are overrepresented in prison for drug trafficking charges.  Other recent Oscar wins for a leading role went to Halle Berry for her performance in Monster’s Ball.  Berry’s performance in the film was stellar, and it was an exceptional film that explored and challenged prejudices based on perceived race that are handed down to and held by many in America, but the film was from an overtly ‘white’ perspective.  It was about a man who embrace bigoted views and came to terms with the flaws of those views, but Berry’s character, though rich and complex, also reinforced many stereotypes about people of colour and eventually sees Berry sleep with the man who killed her own husband.  Forest Whitaker also earned a problematic Oscar for his portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.  Amin was notorious for the human rights abuses he was responsible for, so rather than celebrating strong performances by actors portraying civil rights leaders like David Oyelowo’s turn as Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, or Washington’s performance as Malcolm X, the Academy awards Whitaker for playing a man who violated human rights, reaffirming stereotypes that people from the ‘dark continent’ need the ‘civilising’ influence of the West.  When considering that in decades past, 100% of voters were Caucasian, and that even today 94% of the voters are Caucasian despite the fact that only 77% of America’s population is Caucasian, the source of this overt bias seems clear.

 

Sidney Poitier, the first man of colour to win an Oscar.

Sidney Poitier, the first man of colour to win an Oscar.

Much of these nomination could be contested in terms of the quality of performance as it is difficult to quantify, but in looking at the numbers, it is clear that there is a distinct bias.  In the last forty years, for instance, Daniel Day-Lewis has as many Oscars for actor in a leading role than all men with African heritage combined, and only one fewer than all such men combined.  After Sidney Poitier managed to be the first man of colour with win an Oscar for acting in 1963, it took 38 years, almost four decades, for another man of colour to win the award.  As for women, only two ‘African American’ actresses have won the Oscar for best actress in a lead role, and that number includes Charlize Theron (she’s from South Africa).  When including Charlize Theron as ‘African American’ doubles the number of women with African heritage who have won an Oscar in a given category, you know there is a problem.  Meryl Streep, who is a phenomenal actress, has now been nominated for an Oscar 19 times.  Sadly, that is more times than all women with African heritage combined have been nominated for best actress in a lead role (a number that totals a meager eleven).  As for directors, if you were asked to guess how many men or women with African heritage had won the Oscar for best director and you guessed anything higher than zero, you would be wrong.  In the entire history of the academy, not a single person with African heritage has won that award, and only three, all of them men, have even been nominated.  William Wyler has received four times as many nominations for best director as all people with African heritage combined!  Martin Scorsese and Billy Wilder almost triple!   Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen more than double!  And there are over thirty others who have equaled the total or better!  One such director is John Ford, who has won more Oscars than men with African heritage have even been nominated for!  Even these directors have learned to stay away from issues related to America’s history of civil rights.  Spielberg, who had a number of Oscar heaped onto films like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, films where white people are heroic, failed to secure a single Oscar for either The Color Purple or Amistad (Whoopie Goldberg learned the same lesson as she was passed over for an Oscar in The Color Purple only to be awarded one for her role as a stereotypical quasi-voodoo psychic in Ghost).  When we look at the numbers and see that there are individuals who have better than tripled the total number of nominations awarded to an entire people, it is hard not to see that there is a problem.

 

Kathryn Bigelow, the first only woman to win o Oscar for best director.

Kathryn Bigelow, the first only woman to win o Oscar for best director.

This lack of diversity extends well beyond the color boundary.  When looking the representation of women, we see that outside of acting nominations, few women have been recognized for their work in film.  In the category of best director, we see that women have fared slightly better than people with African heritage, as four women have been nominated in the category and one, Kathryn Bigelow, has even managed to secure an Oscar.  However, her winning film, The Hurt Locker, which is an exceptional film, is a hyper-masculine film.  All of the main characters are men, and it is very much an action film, which is not to say that it is not a film women can enjoy and relate to, but it is certainly a androcentric film in many respects.  Sofia Coppola, one of the other four women to get nominated in this category, was passed over for her film The Virgin Suicides, which gave a voice to the feminine experience under the pressure of patriarchal morality, and instead was nominated for a film, Lost In Translation, that centers on a male figure as he confronts his womanizing ways.  Though a great film that does challenge gender prescriptions, it is not as overtly representative of a female voice as her other films.  As for the acting categories, women are far less likely to earn an Oscar after the age of 40 than are men.  More than half of the women who win an Oscar do so in their 20’s, and ten times as many Oscars go to women in their 20’s and 30’s than women in their 40’s.  Alternately, men in their 40’s needn’t worry, as that seems to be the perfect age range for them, and even in their 50’s and 60’s they don’t see as stark a drop off as women see in those age ranges.  What’s with the ageism?  Since approximately 77% of the Academy voters are men, is seems fair to assume those who are inclined to vote for who they find most attractive will have more sway than they ought to.  Given that convicted child rapists have won as many Oscars for best director as have women, it seems fair to conclude that women, outside of the best actress categories, have not been adequately represented in terms of nominations and wins on Oscar night.

 

 

Charlize Theron, who earned an Oscar for her role in the film Monster.

Charlize Theron, who earned an Oscar for her role in the film Monster.

Members of the LGBT community have reason to express concern about how they are represented as well.  Though a number films have shared stories about LGBT people, and a number of the roles representing them have won, these victories are problematic at best.  Hilary Swank, Sean Penn, Tom Hanks, Charlize Theron, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Jared Leto have all won Oscar whilst playing members of the LGBT community, and Felicity Huffman, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, among many others, have all been nominated in such roles.  However, none of these actors are actually members of the LGBT community, or at least none are openly member of the community.  Though I do not fault casting directors for casting heterosexual people in such roles, as members of the LGBT community play ‘straight’ roles on a regular basis, it is still problematic that the representations being celebrated are dictated by the dominant, heteronormative culture.  The most recent example is Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game.  The film is a biopic based on the life of Alan Turing, who after helping to save potentially thousands of lives during WWII, was the victims of archaic anti-homosexuality laws that led to his chemical castration and eventual suicide.  I have not had a chance to see the film yet, so I cannot speak to its merit, but the reviews I have read have noted that the film is devoid of any romantic or sexual interactions for the lead character.  Whilst it is refreshing to see that the homosexual character is not defined strictly in terms of his sexuality, it is also problematic that the portion of his life for which he was persecuted, a portion that seemingly outweighed his vital contributions to the war effort in the eyes of the British government, is washed clean away.  The film does touch on his conviction, but the romantic life that defined his persecution is apparently left off screen as if it were the action in a Greek tragedy.  The Academy has of course awarded Oscars to members of the LGBT community, but only one openly gay person has ever won an Oscar for acting: Sir John GielgudJodie Foster, who came out in 2013, won an Oscar, but this was before she her orientation was widely known.  Obviously these numbers are not firm given that some actors have chosen to keep their orientation private, and this commentary is not meant to single out any actors who are members of the LGBT community, but it is important to note that, with increasing frequency, heterosexual actors are telling stories on behalf of members of the LGBT community and are frequently celebrated for it whilst members of the LGBT community, who have some of the most talented actors among their ranks, have failed to be recognized for their contribution to acting.

 

Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin.

Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin.

There also seems to be an ableist bias at the Academy.  This is an sensitive topic for obvious reasons as different people define their status as members of the disabled community differently, but what is clear is that a number of actors have taken on roles of people who had disabilities that they themselves did not have, and like heterosexual actors who have been awarded with Oscars playing members of the LGBT community, so to have a number of actors earned Oscars, or Oscar nominations for portraying people with disabilities they themselves did not have.  The most recent example is of course Eddie Redmayne who has been nominated for best actor in a lead role for playing famed physicist Stephen Hawking, but past winners include  Patty Duke, John Voight, Tom Hanks, Daniel Day-Lewis, all of whom have won Oscars for playing people with disabilities they did not have.  Though I see nothing wrong with this practice as it is an actor’s job to portray somebody they are not, it does seem as though this is a group that is not fairly represented on screen, and most especially at the Oscars.  Duke, Voight, Hanks and Lewis all put forth great efforts to be respectful of people with these disabilities and allowed their performances to advocate for disabled peoples, as has Redmayne, and given that many of the people and characters these actors have portrayed developed a disability later in life, it becomes necessary in terms of the pragmatics of continuity to have an actor without a disability to play the role on screen; however, there is something frustrating about this.  There any number of talented actors who have disabilities and are capable of excelling in roles written for characters or people who share their disability.   Two such actors have been awarded with Oscars: Harold Russell and Marlee Matlin, but these are underwhelming numbers, and having people outside of the disabled community representing and advocating for the disabled community when they are more than capable of doing so themselves is no doubt frustrating.

 

Jennifer Hudson, one of four Black women to win an Oscar in the last ten years.

Jennifer Hudson, one of four Black women to win an Oscar in the last ten years.

In the Academy’s defense, a lot of this is a reflection of biases in the industry.  Women and people of colour, for instance, are not awarded directing duties with the same frequency that white men are, so there is a much smaller pool of directors to choose from in that respect.  However, the Academy is comprised of people from the industry, so they are culpable of this lack of representation in some respects.  Directing and other categories aside, there is no reason why the acting categories should not be reflective of the diversity that is present on the screen and in American society.  The Academy does deserve some credit, especially given that since 1982, more men of colour have won Oscars for acting than in all the years leading up to that time, and three have taken home the Oscar for best lead actor since 2001.  As for women of colour, they have been winning with increasing frequency as five women with African heritage have won a best actress Oscar since 2001 (one lead and four supporting). The last twenty-five years has seen three men with African heritage earn nominations for best director, which had never happened prior.   These numbers, though, are only promising.  They have not eliminated the bias that is present; they have only indicated that it is possible.  The numbers for other marginalized groups is far less optimistic.  I am not suggesting that there be a quota in place, but I am suggesting that there is a bias, both in the industry that does not give members of marginalized groups the same opportunities, and at the Academy, who often fails to recognize the voices of these same groups.  This is not a question of somebody being robbed of an Oscar.  I am not of the mind that a work of art can be measured and compared to another piece of art to determine which is better.  The matter is far too subjective to quantify.  However, given the diverse make-up of the films that are produced each year, and the diverse make-up of American society, there is no justifiable reason that this diversity should not be adequately represented when nominations are announced and awards are handed out.

 

If you enjoyed this post and would like updates on my latest ramblings, be sure to follow me on Twitter @MarthaLQueen.  For updates from Literary Ramblings, be sure to follow @LiteraryRambler.  Feel free to leave your constructive responses in the comments section below.

 

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