Hollywood’s Diversity Problem: What #OscarsSoWhite Tells Us About the Film Industry

Nora Turriago ’16
Opinions Editor 

When watching movies, it has become a sort of game of mine to find the actors of color. With Hollywood movies featuring primarily white actors, I nearly jump out of my seat with excitement when I finally spot the rare flash of dark skin – and, upon realizing the role is that of a drug dealer, maid or gardener, I slowly sit back down, dejected.

While television shows tend to be more diverse in casting, movies are something else entirely. As a person of color, I have gotten used to not expecting to see someone who looks like me in a main role – especially in a Hollywood blockbuster. After all, following Hollywood logic, why cast someone who actually has ethnic or racial diversity when you could pay a white actor to get a tan? (Recent examples of whitewashing include: Emma Stone playing the quarter-Chinese character Alison Ng in “Aloha,” European actors cast in “Gods of Egypt” as Egyptians and Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in “Pan”). Such casting choices ignore the talent of actors of color, fail to reflect the rapidly shifting demographics of a more diverse United States and perpetuate stereotypes of people of color, who are usually portrayed onscreen as dangerous or inept.

And then, just to make a point about how little actors of color are valued on screen, the Academy Awards failed to recognize any minority actors for the second year in a row. While movies about black lives like “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” did receive recognition, it was for the white writers (“Compton”) or a white performer (Sylvester Stallone in “Creed”). Give me a break.

As a result of the all-white nominations, many in the entertainment industry are calling for a boycott of the award ceremony. Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith announced they would not be attending. On his Instagram, Lee wrote, “How is it possible for the second consecutive year all 20 contenders under the actor category are white? And let’s not even get into the other branches. Forty white actors in two years and no flava at all. We can’t act? WTF!!”

Other actors have expressed a similar sentiment, with Halle Berry – the only African American actress to win an Academy Award for best actress – describing the lack of diversity as “heartbreaking.” However, some disagree. Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling claimed boycotting the Oscars is racist to white people. Michael Caine advised black actors to “be patient” and said it had taken him “years to get an Oscar, years.”

One thing is for sure: something has to change. The recent Screen Actors Guild awards further exposed the Oscars’ lack of diversity, with Idris Elba, Viola Davis, Uzo Aduba and Queen Latifah all winning awards. Elba – who went home with two awards, said “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to diverse TV.”

In response to the backlash against the all-white Oscar nominations, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – and an African American woman – promised a review of recruitment efforts, saying, “This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes.”

Even President Obama weighed in on the issue, saying the film industry would benefit from the creativity of actors from black and minority ethnic backgrounds: “I think that when everyone’s story is told … that makes for better art.”

Which begs the question: Why do people, or at least mainstream media, only care about diversity during Oscar season? Forget being recognized by the Academy – the more pressing issue is the lack of minorities in substantial roles.

When Viola Davis became the first African American woman to win an Emmy Award for best actress in a drama series earlier this year, she said in her acceptance speech, “The only thing that separates women of color from everyone else is opportunity… You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Davis’s powerful speech demonstrates the power that the film industry can have in recognizing the talent of actors of color. Opportunities to showcase such talent need to be created. When audiences are denied seeing diverse faces looking back at them from the screen, when minority actors are limited to stereotypical roles, when directors think it’s acceptable to cast a white actor as a person of color, Hollywood has failed.

The film industry can no longer afford to ignore diverse talent, as well as the diverse audiences paying to watch the films.  Hollywood needs to wake up and begin seriously investing in providing the opportunity for people of color to exist on screen and share their stories with the world. This means that more roles for people of color need to be written allowing a more representative cast to reflect the true demographics of American audiences – perhaps then, more award recognition will follow.

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