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Oscars 2020: Does the Academy have a diversity problem?

Oscars 2020: Does the Academy have a diversity problem?

Oscars Diversity 2020 Cynthia Erivo

There’s something of a controversy currently blowing up about the Academy Awards. This is, of course, par the course with the Oscars – since every year it has started there’s some form of controversy, be it who is hosting, who got nominated, or who didn’t get nominated. But this year in particular, the issue of diversity has been raised prominently.

The reasons are clear: this year, the acting categories are all full of white nominees, save for one. That’s twenty people, only one of which is not white, in the form of Cynthia Erivo for her role as Harriet Tubman in Harriet, while in the directing category all five are men, and only one (Bong Joon-ho) is non-white.

The argument thrown back at people by the Academy’s defenders is that maybe there just weren’t any good performances by actors/actresses who are not white. This argument doesn’t stand up too well when you take a closer look. This year has had several fantastic films starring people of colour, and directed by people of colour or women (or both).

Cynthia Erivo Harriet
Cynthia Erivo in Harriet. The only black nominee for an acting category in this year’s awards.

Not to give the game away for our own alternative Oscars piece that will be coming soon – in time for the real deal – but there have been several performances by people of colour this year that could easily have made the cut here. Not only this, but some of the best films released this year were directed by women or non-white directors any of whom could have taken pride of place in the line-up.

Here’s some: Lulu Wang, Olivia Wilde, Greta Gerwig, Chinonye Chukwu, Alma Har’el, Claire Denis, Lorene Scafaria, Nia DaCosta, Celine Sciamma, Melina Matsoukas and Joanna Hogg. They all directed films that made it into many critic’s top tens of the year, which begs the question: why were none of them nominated?

A counter-question: if there were non-gendered categories for acting – just lead and a supporting – how many women would have been nominated, and of them, how many would have won? After all, we are still in an age where only one woman has won an Academy Award for Best Director, and that was eleven years ago.

For context, the Academy Awards are now entering their 93rd year, and of those 93 years, only five women have been nominated for Best Director: Lina Wertmuller (Seven Beauties 1977), Jane Campion (The Piano 1993), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation 2003), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker 2009) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird 2017).

Perhaps then, it is time to have gendered directing pools, so that there are ten nominees, and then five women are positioned to be nominated for directing. It would also shut up those online that would inevitably label it as “a token award”.

Kathryn Bigelow Oscars
Kathryn Bigelow, the first and only woman at the time of writing to win a Best Director Oscar, for The Hurt Locker in 2009.

Moreover, it would whittle away the problem of the Academy not being inclusive from sexism and racism, to just racism alone. One must understand that there is a race issue within the voting body; it’s not that they hate people of colour, but that they are in fact indifferent. Off the top of your head, can you say when a black person has won the Academy Award for Director? Actor? Actress? Supporting Actor? Supporting Actress?

There has never been a Black best director winner. In fact, the first Black person wasn’t nominated for directing until 1991, and since then only a further five have been nominated. Yes, six nominations overall. These are: John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood 1991), Lee Daniels (Precious 2009), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave 2013), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight 2016), Jordan Peele (Get Out 2017), Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman 2018).

In acting categories, the trend continues. Of the twenty-three nominations black men have received for lead actor, only four have won it. Lead Actresses: of twelve nominations, only one winner. Supporting Actor: nineteen nominations, six wins. Supporting Actress: twenty-four nominations – eight wins.

This should still be celebrated, of course. However, if you look at the winners, yet another rather worrying trend occurs. The award wins usually entail the nominee or winner playing the role of a character who is abused, mistreated or a slave. This might in part be down to the Academy traditionally loving movies about the past, but considering that the only woman of colour to have won remains Halle Berry playing a drug-addicted sex worker, and that the woman in the slave film is the only person of colour nominated this year, the trend stands up.

Yet, despite all this, the black community is actually much better represented in the main acting / directing categories than other ethnicities.

Taking a look at people from Asia, and the sub-Asian continent, the director pool is six nominees, with two wins. This went to the same person, and he had a prior nomination before both wins. Yes, one man makes up 50% of Asia’s achievements in directing. Lead Actor: one nomination, no win. Lead Actress: one nomination, no win. Supporting Actor: four nominations, one win. Supporting Actress: three nominations, one win.

Native or Indigenous people – No directors, no Lead Actors. Lead Actress – two nominees, no win. Supporting Actor – two nominations, no win. Supporting Actress – one nomination, no win. In those, only two are Native American.

No person from India has ever been nominated in the five mentioned categories.

When you put it like this, and consider that each year there are twenty possibilities, the fact that the numbers are so low becomes unacceptable – and many of the actors are multiple nominees.

But why are the numbers so low? Generally, and it’s the same for BAFTA also, the voting pool skewers heavily white and heavily male (and generally heterosexual). That doesn’t mean they have any ill feelings towards other races, but what they deem to be important or impressive in major categories is not as inclusive as they might assume.

Once the pool of voters reflects the diversity of the films being made, will the nominations be more diverse? The women director category appears to be a decent viable option, and this is not a knock against the achievements of those nominated, but rather a plea for more representation for everyone else.

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