The Oscars, Diversity, and A Battle Fought on the Wrong Front

Hollywood is great at two things:

1) Making movies.

2) Patting itself on the back for making movies.

Almost every month there’s another awards show for Hollywood to celebrate its own greatness. Most are trivial (looking at you People’s Choice Awards), but some have more cultural significance. The granddaddy of them all is the Oscars (celebrating all those movies you heard were pretty good but never got around to seeing).

The nominations for the 90th Academy Awards have recently been released. As expected, they’ve spawned much debate. Which actor will win? Which films were “snubbed” (a word which people continue to misuse, but I digress…). The conversation surrounding the awards has, as usual, extended beyond cinema. Today’s culture is never timid to politicize something. This can be good (see my blog on the Golden Globes here), often it’s bad, and sometimes it’s simply misguided. Much of the recent discussion surrounding the Oscars falls into this third category.

Two years ago, the ceremony became a platform to highlight the issue of racial diversity (or lack thereof). The influential and far-reaching #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was deployed in response to the fact that, for the second year in a row, all 20 acting nominees were white. This year, the event will undoubtedly be heavily focused on gender diversity. This was foreshadowed at the recent Golden Globes ceremony, when actress Natalie Portman made headlines by presenting the award for best director with the jab, “and here are the all-male nominees” (to the clear discomfort of those squirming male nominees).

Gender Gap

Diversity is the buzz-word of the day. Whether racial or gender, the call for diversity is the banner under which Hollywood has been marching. While this is certainly a fight worth fighting, I believe that passion for quick change has blinded some people to the real issue and comforted them with a false sense of progress.

The solution is not to give out token awards to satisfy a forced quota of gender or racial diversity. This puts a Band-Aid on an injury that requires antibiotics and reconstructive surgery. The job of the Academy is to nominate and award the best movies and acting performances, not to make a social or political statement. They’ve been put in a no-win position: if their honest opinions don’t match the current cultural narrative, they risk being skewered as racists or misogynists (serious accusations far too easily tossed about).

The same is true for those being nominated. Worthy directors and actors should not be punished or discredited simply for being white, male, or both (ie. Natalie Portman’s misguided quip). Was Spielberg nominated for a Golden Globe because he’s a white male and the voters have a bias against women of color? Or, was he nominated because he’s Steven Freaking Spielberg, a guy who knows a thing or two about making movies? (The guy directed JAWS. Give him all the awards until Jesus returns).

It’s true that voting members of the Academy routinely nominate far more male than female directors (only 1 woman has ever won an Oscar for best director). Consider, however, that of the top 250 films in 2017, only 11% were directed by a woman. In a way, the fact that 20% (1 of the 5) of the 2017 nominees for the best director are female is actually disproportionally slanted in favor of women.

The same is true with racial diversity. While Latinos comprise about 18% of the U.S. population (and 23% of the movie-going audience), only 3% of speaking roles in of the top 100 films (in 2016) were played by Latino actors or actresses. With such a small pool to pull from, it’s no surprise that the #OscarsNotSoBrown, as some are already beginning to campaign. In fact, a few years ago a USC study found that only 28.3% of all speaking roles were given to non-white ethnic groups (despite making up around 40% of the American population), and only 7% of films accurately reflect the actual real-world racial distribution of the country.

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 4.33.43 PM_0

What does this all mean? It means that the problem is not the Oscars. The problem is far broader and deeper than that—an ugly reality that gets exposed every time an awards ceremony holds up a mirror and reflects it back for all to see. This can’t be fixed by pointing fingers and blaming a small voting committee. This only masks the real issue (“a woman and a black man were nominated for best director this year, happy now?”). The goal should not be to give out token awards to the few outliers who’ve trickled in through the cracks—it should be to demolish the wall completely and give equal opportunity for all people to demonstrate what they can do. An equal playing field will lead to award diversity, but award diversity will only continue to mask the need for an equal playing field. So, as movie casts continue to diversify and roles traditional given to men now seem more and more to be claimed by women, let’s not be too quick to question or dismiss the choices as “politically correct” or agenda-driven. They are the first signs that a broken system is starting to correct itself.

There will surely be growing pains. Some film-makers have handled the issue with the grace of a tap-dancing elephant. Others are driven by equally wrong and dangerous motivations, hijacking the movement to push their own philosophies and social doctrines. Yet, rather than grow increasingly skeptical and cynical, we should also acknowledge and celebrate that, one way or another, change is happening. Hopefully in the future, when movie award ceremonies hold a mirror up to our society, instead of hashtags and politics, we can instead celebrate the beautifully diverse image reflected back to us. Diversity is not a liberal or conservative agenda-—it is a Biblical one, which will find it’s perfect expression in heaven. My prayer is that we don’t have to wait until then to catch a glimpse.

*Remember: Disagreement is a welcome and healthy part of dialogue. Being a jerk is not.*  

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