After all of the build up, the 2016 Oscars are finally at an end and the speeches, parties and red carpet outfits are already a distant memory. Highlights and clips have echoed through our social media feeds, not least of which is the witty yet scathing opening monologue of host Chris Rock as he states plainly amongst the furor of the heated diversity debate that Hollywood is racist. "But not the ‘racist’ you’ve become accustomed to." The absence of a single non-white nominee within the four acting categories, sparked the popular #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and empassioned indictments from industry figures of multiple ethnicities.
Mark Ruffalo, George Millar, Jada Pinkett Smith, Reese Witherspoon, Spike Lee, George Clooney, Lupita Nyong’o and many others expressed their disappointment at the lack of inclusion and recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of non-white actors and cited a “regression” within the Academy. Jada Pinkett Smith took her displeasure still further by announcing that she would not be attending the awards and sparking a boycott of the Oscars. Much has been made of the demographic make-up of the 6000 voting members of the Academy, namely that it is 94% white, 76% male and has an average age of 63. The concern with a demographic make up such as this is the danger that it limits the perspectives from which potential films and nominees are judged. People from alternative backgrounds would bring opinions and perspectives that otherwise may not be applied to certain films or certain performances. Film is, after all, an art and art is subjective.
One could make the point (and many have) that great performances from black actors or people of colour simply were not in evidence this year. While that could be countered by citing Michael B. Jordan’s leading performance in ‘Creed’, Idris Elba’s chillingly intense performance in ‘Beasts of no Nation’ or Will Smith’s ambitious performance in ‘Concussion’, it can still be argued that potential nominees of colour were still light on the ground. So why is this?
Snubs: Will Smith (Concussion), Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), Michael B. Jordan (Creed) and Idris Elba (Beasts of no Nation)
As part of an organisation that screens and promotes short film, I viewed this debate from a point of view that was not really addressed in the diversity debate. There were a total of fifteen short films nominated for an Academy Award between the categories of Live Action Short, Documentary Short and Animated Short and in stark contrast to the acting and best director categories; the diversity could not have been more visible. It may be controversial to suggest that diverse representation was in evidence at this year’s Academy Awards, after all, the categories that people generally pay attention to are the four acting categories, best director and best film.
But perhaps there is a reason for this lack of recognition of non-white actors besides the often-cited demographics of the Academy itself. Whoopi Goldberg blasted the aforementioned boycott during an episode of ‘The View’ and astutely observed that the issue goes deeper than nominations and is rooted in non-white actors not being hired for productions that actually get the go ahead. This assertion is backed up by an interview given by ‘Selma’ star David Oyelowo on the 'Charlie Rose Show' who contends that the opportunities presented to Ava Duvernay following her success with ‘Selma’ in 2014 would have been much greater if she was a white male. He goes on to state that this is to do with the decision makers who tend to give these opportunities to people who look like them. Since we all want to see people who reflect ourselves in film, television and other popular media, what we tend to see in the movies are people who reflect the decision makers. Even Will Smith, who joined the boycott started by his wife, pointed out that “the nominations reflect the Academy, the Academy reflects the industry… and the industry reflects America”. This suggests that it is the industry and not the Academy where the attention needs to be focused to solve this problem.
Let us look to the short film categories for examples of how they succeeded where the acting, directing and best film categories failed in recognising diverse artists and subject matter. The nominated films in the three short film categories of Documentary Short, Animated Short and Live Action Short showed diversity in front of and behind the camera as well as in the subject matter itself. ‘Body Team 12’, was a short documentary about Garmai Sumo, a Liberian woman who worked in the body disposal teams during the height of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa last year.
Layla Alizada in Best Live Action Short nominee 'Day One' Garmai Sumo in Best Documentary Short nominee Body Team 12
There was also war drama ‘Day One’ a live action drama about an Afghan-American woman who works as a translator in the US Army, whose first day on the front lines of the war in Afghanistan sees her have to engage with a desperate situation to help save the family of the very terrorist that her unit is trying to apprehend. ‘Ave Maria’ focused on Palestinian-Israeli tensions within the context of a comedy drama as five Palestinian nuns in the West Bank find themselves having to help a bickering family of Israeli settlers get home after a car crash.
Another of the Short Documentary nominees was Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s ‘A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness’, which brings focus to the blight of honour killings in Pakistan. This film drew so much attention to the honour killing issue that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sherif made a public pledge to change the law to tackle honour killings after seeing the film and hearing of its Academy Award nomination. Even Pixar’s inevitable offering was about the cultural clashes between a first generation Indian-American boy and his devoutly Hindu father in ‘Sanjay’s Super Team’. There are many other examples, but the above films alone make the case for diversity amongst the short film nominees.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy at the World Economic Forum in 2013
So why the disparity? Why are we seeing so many nominees who are either people of colour or people telling stories about people of colour in the short film categories and so few in the last two years in the main feature film categories? Not to mention so many female-focused stories and female-led productions. My theory on this can be summed up in one word: Money. The need to create films based on who and what sells is obviously a huge factor in deciding which films a studio will give the green light to, which in turn, plays into what gets nominated for the top awards come Oscar time.
The justifications offered when people enquire into why there are so few people of colour winning the top awards or headlining the high-profile movies tend to centre on an often used but flimsy explanation: black leads don’t sell. To quash this argument, one need look no further than the monstrous success of Eddie Murphy’s and Whoopi Goldberg’s careers in the 80s and 90s, the critical acclaim and box office success of ’12 Years A Slave’ in 2013 and ‘Straight Outta Compton’ in 2015 or Samuel L. Jackson in…well take your pick! But while we ponder over who is on the right side of the argument when it comes to ethnic and gender representation, there is one key thought that we all must bear in mind. Hollywood is not in the business of providing opportunity or being proportionally representative in matters of race, gender or sexual orientation. Hollywood cares about its films making money. If promoting a hot new black or Latino or Asian star means they will make more money, then that’s what they will do. If it means populating epic dramas set in Egypt or the ancient Middle East with white American, British or Australian actors (‘The Ten Commandments’, ‘Noah’, ‘Gods of Egypt’, we’re looking at you), then that is what they will do. Hollywood does not care about your feelings. They care about their money.
Social reform in business happens, not when you make business owners feel bad about being unfair, but when you demonstrate that it is more profitable to be socially inclusive or that it is too costly to be socially exclusive. Disney was absolutely fine with the first Star Wars film under their banner to be led by an unknown white female and an unknown black male. Is this because they wanted to go out of their way to have more female or black leads in their tentpole movies? Maybe, but I doubt it. They were fine with this casting choice because they were confident in the way that their chosen director, J.J. Abrams, was crafting the new movie. (And, of course, he had risen in stature to the level of ‘J.J. Abrams’). It ticked all of the requisite boxes to make them confident that they had a winner on their hands…and boy were they right. With a $2 billion and counting worldwide box office take, it would be very difficult to find grumblings from within the studio about the casting of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega.
Moreover the success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens will go a long way towards these two fine actors being able to open or sell a movie based on their names. And therein lie both the problem and the solution. Demonstrate profitability. Hollywood works in trends. When a type of film proves itself to be popular, the studios scramble to make more of them to cash in on the current craze.
For those of you old enough to remember the release of John Singleton’s seminal urban drama ‘Boyz N The Hood’, you may also remember the slew of urban drama or ‘hood’ movies that followed. There are actors that emerged from this era who continue successful film and television careers today, including Ice Cube, Nia Long, Morris Chestnut, Regina King, Wesley Snipes and Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. While their collective success has ebbed and flowed along the way, they have demonstrated their ability to remain a part of the Hollywood landscape for more than two decades. This on its own demonstrates the talent and potential for longevity and profitability amongst black actors and came about due to a trend that studios in Hollywood identified as profitable.
The same rule applies not just to the type of film but stars themselves, as demonstrated by the emergence of actors like Kevin Hart and Chris Rock, or the pop culture phenomena that has been the careers of Will Smith, Denzel Washington and the aforementioned Samuel L. Jackson. If you make money, Hollywood will stand by you, like Eddie Murphy. If you don’t, it will drop you hard – like Eddie Murphy. Perhaps it is my cynical mind that brings such a divisive and complex issue back to something so simple and crass as money, but let’s see how the predominantly white male Academy votes when commercial considerations are removed from the equation. Enter the short film categories.
Matthew Needham in the Oscar winning 'Stutterer'
There was plenty of fare from white filmmakers that the Academy could have chosen from if they were so inclined as the #OscarsSoWhite movement might argue that they were. Indeed, the winner of the Live Action category went to the wonderful ‘Stutterer’ directed by Benjamin Cleary, a white Irish filmmaker. The German short film ‘Everything Will be Okay (Alles wird Gut)’ from director Patrick Vollrath, ‘World of Tomorrow’ by Don Hertzfeldt, ‘We Can’t Live Without Cosmos’ by Konstantin Bronzit and ‘Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah’ by Adam Benzine were other short films that had predominantly white casting and white directors.
The winners of the Animation and Documentary categories were Latin American (Chile; ‘Bear Story’) and south Asian (Pakistan; ‘A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness’) respectively. And for a Pakistani Muslim woman to have won one of the industry’s top awards (for the second time) in a country with a front running presidential candidate with a groundswell of support for his intentions of banning Muslims from entering that country, you have to question the blanket assertion of discrimination amongst the Academy members.
If it is purely prejudice or a detachment from other cultures that caused the absence of non-white faces in the major categories, there were many other categories where this could have been evident. When money ceases to be a controlling factor in how projects develop, both filmmaker and viewer alike are free to focus on and appreciate the art and the talent that helps to create it. When that happens, status-quo-challenging perspectives and depictions emerge and they do so almost without us noticing, because they are closer to the world that we recognise in our daily lives than what we are used to seeing from Hollywood’s finest.
Everybody wants to see themselves reflected truthfully in film and the market is there to support that desire, allowing us to do away with the fallacy that only ‘straight’, ‘white’ and ‘male’ sells. The inclusion of more ethnic groups or more defined roles for women or more complex gay characters does not have to be the focus of the story that you are watching or even referred to, it simply needs to be present.
Take a look at ‘The Matrix Trilogy’ for an example of how to embrace ethnic and gender diversity within a film without making it the focus. Or if we branch for a moment into television, the Marvel/Netflix series ‘Jessica Jones’ gives us a female-dominated cast and a same-sex relationship without ever once making an obvious statement about gender or homosexuality. Yes we need to see a more societally representative Academy, but first we need a more socially brave industry. If the rest of the world, be they online audiences or film festivals, can be drawn to the abundance of short films being produced every year, and if their impact has been such that even without an established mainstream platform for years, they were still being recognised by the Academy, then you have to conclude that a market exists for films that are diverse in their ethnic, gender or social make up. The profitability of diversity is well proven. What is missing is a studio smart enough to acknowledge what is plainly evident and brave enough to embrace what true diversity has to offer.