By Tochi Onuora
On the 14th, when the Oscar nominations were released, there was an immediate uproar due to the lack of ethnic diversity in the acting nominations and Best Picture nominees. Having sat and thought on it for a little while, I’m not entirely sure that the criticism was completely on-point, but I’m glad it at the very least got the conversation started on #OscarsSoWhite.
To suggest that all of the best performances were by white actors is to subconsciously imply that only white actors can act well. It’s a deeply problematic issue.
Apologies for bursting the bubble, but no, it’s not a question of offending the nominees. That’s like saying Feminism is bad, because it makes men feel bad. It’s not a personal discredit to the nominees, but their nominations have propagated an institutionally racist system. I’m glad to see that some can acknowledge this problem, such as Best Actress nominee Brie Larson with her extremely cautious/politically perfect mention of how the diversity conversation ‘deserves attention’. To suggest that minority actors just weren’t as good is rather naïve, for many a reason. There were swathes of minority performances to pick from: Benicio Del Toro in Sicario, Samuel L Jackson in The Hateful Eight, Tessa Thompson in Creed, the list goes on.
When a performance reaches a certain level, it’s not a question of how empirically good each one is. This isn’t a Mathematics test; all awards nominees are picked by people, subjectively. Sure, there are criteria that often pop up in lots of high-achievers; many even seem to target this (known as Awards Baiting). But really, there’s so little in it. That’s why I can’t fault any of the performances of the actual nominees. But the fact that all of these possibly nominated performances were just as good leaves a throbbing question.
They were all quite good, but the academy still ended up leaning towards an all-white slate. This as a result is a sign of an underlying racism. When two performances are just as good, the white one wins. That’s what needs to be tackled. It’s a disturbingly amusing irony to notice that Straight Outta Compton, film about NWA (you know, black people), only gained a nomination for its white screenwriters. Sylvester Stallone gained the only nomination for Creed, a very ethnically diverse movie.
After the controversy, the Academy announced plans to diversify the voting body, by doubling the number of ethnic minority and female members (currently it’s roughly 93% white and 76% male). I’m sceptical of how much this will achieve, as it is my belief that this slate of nominations was merely a symptom of the actual underlying issue.
Hollywood is lacking in diversity all around. If the majority of films feature white people in the meatiest roles (diversity doesn’t quite count in the same why if it’s the funny black friend caricature or the smart Chinese girl stereotype), then it’s really not a surprise that all of the nominees tend to be largely even entirely, white. Some stats: Latino people make up 17% of all US citizens, and are the largest ethnic group in Los Angeles (where Hollywood is); yet they make up just 4% of all speaking roles in US film. People of Asian descent are also poorly represented. Much of the focus has been on the lack of black nominees, but even within the umbrella term of ‘people of colour,’ there is still a worrying hierarchy.
Some might say that 2015 was a great year for diversity in film. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, was the highest-grossing release of the year, and it featured a white female, a black male and a Latino male in the lead roles (a mix that shouldn’t be important, but is, because of the rarity of the occurrence in blockbusters).
For a film to feature a minority actor in the lead role, it usually needs to be impossible for the role to go to a non-minority actor. E.g. a black person must be playing a slave/maid, a Chinese guy needs to play the Kung-Fu master and so on. However, 2015 still saw Emma Stone play a Hawaiian native and the character of Mindy Park, written as Korean in Andy Weir’s novel, was played by a white woman in the (Oscar-nominated) film adaptation of The Martian. Minority actors even lose the few roles made for them.
Production companies rarely think to cast outside of the systematically racist box, where the default assumption is that the character is white. This results in a lack of diversity across the film industry.
So, I think we really need to listen to what Viola Davis said, becoming the first Black Woman to win Outstanding Drama Lead Actress at the Emmys in September; “You can’t win…for roles that are simply not there.” The Academy with its diversity target is seeking to lead by example. Hopefully, the rest of the industry will follow.