Image

A writer’s take on #OscarsSoWhite

Yes, this is one more post about the lack of diversity in the Oscars. But, hopefully, this one will bring some perspective you haven’t considered before.

Last night I engaged in a spirited debate on Reddit about the merits of the #OscarsSoWhite movement. I think I changed a lot of minds, judging by the number of upvotes. So I want to put those thoughts on a broader medium, and hopefully arm others with the points they can use to win their own arguments.

As a writer myself, I create casts of characters that reflect the world at large. Diversity is one of my main themes, because that is the world I see when I go outside and live in the rich metropolis that is LA. But, sadly, many creators here fail to translate these multicultural gifts into their work.

So we know there is a deeply disappointing lack of diversity in the Oscars again. But what’s the cause? How do we fix it? Is this hashtag movement even doing anything?

Let’s try to answer those questions by responding to the most common retorts to the movement.

Don’t blame the Oscar voters; blame the industry

This ignores who the Oscar voters are; they ARE the industry. This isn’t the press or fans voting. These are people who worked (or are currently working) in the industry. Top of their field. The Producers Guild of America (PGA) membership overlaps most with the Academy’s. These are people who have the ability, resources, and influence to help get more minorities into film. They are the exact people you’d want to lobby.

And, unfortunately, they are overwhelmingly white (94%), old (62 and up), and male (74%).

Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being an old white guy. The world needs old white guys. But when such an important body that is supposedly curating the best film contributions of all groups is overwhelmingly comprised of just one group, it leads to a lack of diverse perspective that can appreciate a film or script or actor outside the Oscar “norm”.

There weren’t enough “black” movies out there that warranted nomination

Putting aside the problem with designating a movie as “black” or “white”, this statement just isn’t true.

Just a few of the critically lauded films with majority black casts that were eligible for Oscar noms:

  • Dope
  • Tangerine
  • Chi-raq
  • Girlhood – French film, critically acclaimed (96% on RottenTomatoes), yet never made it to the conversation for best foreign language film (because France submitted Mustang, a similarly reviewed film about pale Turkish girls, unlike Girlhood which is all dark black girls. Just sayin’).

And it’s not just “black” movies here. It doesn’t have to be black movies. Latinos and Asians do make movies too.

Me, Earl, and the Dying girl – diverse cast, won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize AND the Sundance Audience Award, directed by a Latino. No Oscar love.

Yeah, but those movies you mentioned didn’t make a lot of money. Nobody saw them

I hear this argument often, and it’s somewhat valid for the industry as a whole, however when it comes to the Oscars it falls apart for one simple reason:

It’s only very recently that many Oscar nominated movies did well at the box office, and even today, a lot of them don’t.

Take Birdman for instance. It was far, far from a box office smash. The only reason it did as well as it did was BECAUSE of the Oscar buzz. It was one of the lowest-grossing Best Picture winners ever.

The Artist grossed less than 50 mil in box office but it beat out The Help for Best Picture (which did very well, grossing 177.5 million, proving that black women can indeed bring in both money and award recognition if you cast them)

Children of Men? Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Editing. Ho hum at the box office (widely considered a commercial flop).

The Hurt Locker hadn’t even cleared 15 million at the box office until the Oscar buzz started.

So it’s safe to say a lot of people didn’t see a lot of Oscar movies, or were even aware of them until they started getting Oscar buzz. And that’s okay; the Oscars aren’t supposed to be about who made the most money.

But a big part of the discrepancy that is very important in the spirit of #OscarsSoWhite is that movies without majority white casts aren’t getting the “Oscar bump” that pulls them out of obscurity, like so many other movies got (including last year’s best picture winner Birdman).

Yeah but black movies specifically don’t make money unless they’re stupid comedies and that’s why the industry doesn’t make them

Oh really?

  • Creed: 181 million box
  • Straight Outta Compton: 200 Million Box office
  • 42: 97 million
  • The Butler: 116 million domestic alone

I could go on.

Okay, so what’s the deal? Why aren’t more minorities getting roles in these movies

This is the most important question, and there are many theories. Here’s mine.

I live in LA (I can actually go outside, look up, and see the Hollywood sign), and I am dipping my toe into the screenwriting businesses. There is a strong culture of “default white”. Meaning that UNLESS you very specifically make a character a certain ethnicity, the producers and casting directors will just default to white.

And it’s not just me saying this. The ScriptNotes podcast (led by screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin) is arguably the most famous and influential podcast on Hollywood filmmaking. They covered this very problem in their 180th episode where they had guest Aline Brosh Mckenna (who wrote The Devil Wears Prada).

Quote from the transcript:

John: And I want to go back to something you said earlier. If you don’t stipulate that a person is a certain — is not white –

Aline: Yes.

John: That person will be white. And that’s the thing I sort of found again and again as you sort of go through the casting. So I do that thing what you talk about where I will deliberately give a person, you know, a Chinese last name so that they will look at Chinese actors for that part, because if you don’t do that, the default just tends to become white.

That doesn’t mean that casting directors are racist. In fact a lot of them are quite nice, open-minded people. But they’re working in a world that has been traditionally white, largely because it was allowed to be that way for so long. Every art looks to what came before for inspiration, but in the case of Hollywood cinema the past was lily white because nobody else was allowed to play.

Additionally, a lot of these people grew up in WASPy environments with not a lot of diversity. So they stick to what they know, and everything ends up default white, until you challenge them on it.

Perhaps the best example I can think of here is the casting of Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon. Marion Dougherty, legendary casting director who blazed trails in her own right as a woman, read the Lethal Weapon script and talked with director Richard Donner. And the convo went something like this:

Marion: “What about Danny Glover?”

Donner: “But he’s black!”

Marion: “So what, he’s black. He can act. The script doesn’t say anything about Murtaugh’s race.”

To his credit, Donner had an epiphany, questioned his own prejudices, and cast Glover (and became good friends with him). Donner talks about this in a speech he gave awarding Glover some award (I can’t find it now, but it’s in the great movie Casting By).

Moral of the story: nothing changes if we don’t call it out consistently and vocally. Many times people aren’t even really aware of what they’re doing, or they’re working off of outdated beliefs about what can work in the industry.

As long as we keep calling the industry out on it, things will change. We need more Marion Dougherty’s.

*header image courtesy of Lee and Low books (blog.leeandlow.com)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s