On the morning of January 14, when Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and actor John Krasinski announced the nominees for the major categories of the 88th Academy Awards, there was something very familiar about the slate: its whiteness. For the second year in a row, none of the 20 acting nominees were people of color, a “white-out” met with a swift pushback on social media, which quickly resurrected last year’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. And thus began another conversation about inclusion and the Oscars – but this time, one that expanded well beyond the inciting incident.
Not that the Academy’s shoddy history with actors of color should be glossed over. Since the inception of the annual ceremony in 1929, the Academy has seen fit to nominate 66 performances by African-American actors, 20 by Latin Americans, 17 by Asian Americans, and only six by Hispanic Americans. Those nominees have been fairly evenly dispersed through the years, though rarely more than one or two at a time (an occasional acknowledgment that predates even the Civil Rights era). The back-to-back exclusion of actors of color hasn’t happened since 1979-80, and the last time the Academy had even a single year of all-white nominees, the blowback was fierce. That was 1996, 20 years ago. Had so little changed in two decades?
One thing that had changed was the prevalence of social media, and the megaphone it provided to the disenfranchised. On Facebook, actor/producer Jada Pinkett Smith suggested people of color boycott the ceremony. On Instagram, filmmaker Spike Lee – who received an honorary Oscar at November’s Governors Awards (and spoke, ironically enough, about the need to have “a serious conversation about diversity”) – announced he would not attend either. “For too many years when the Oscars nominations are revealed, my office phone rings off the hook with the media asking me my opinion about the lack of African Americans and this year was no different,” he wrote. “For once, (maybe) I would like the media to ask all the white nominees and studio heads how they feel about another all-white ballot.” (To their credit, this year they did. It didn’t go so well.)
But Lee had a larger point to make. “As I see it, the Academy Awards is not where the ‘real’ battle is,” he wrote. “It’s in the executive office of the Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks… Those with the ‘green light’ vote.” And he’s right; beyond the snubs of Idris Elba for Supporting Actor, Will Smith or Michael B. Jordan for Actor, or Straight Outta Compton for Best Picture lies that sad truth that so few black actors and films were even possibilities. The Oscars are representative of the industry; the industry is horrifying with regards to representation.
It’s been a problem for years, but the dull roar has become deafening. And yet, from tweets to blog posts to newspaper articles, the conversation almost always ends with acknowledgement of the problem, and with precious few suggestions for how to actually fix it. So with that goal in mind, I reached out to several people in the industry – directors, writers, producers – to tell their stories and to talk, on and off the record, about how to do that.
But first, let’s quantify exactly what we’re talking about here. The definitive authority on the matter is the University of Southern California-Annenberg’s annual study of inequality in popular films, which crunches the numbers on the 100 highest-grossing films of each year – a fairly reliable snapshot of the films studios are making (or distributing) and promoting. For the top 100 films of 2014 (the most recent year for which stats are available), they found characters were 73.1% white, 12.5% black, 5.3% Asian, 4.9% Hispanic/Latino, 2.9% Middle Eastern, less than 1% American Indian/Alaskan Native or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 1.2% from “other” racial and/or ethnic groupings. (These numbers pretty much line up with their findings for the past six years.) Seventeen of those films didn’t feature a single black or African-American speaking character; 40 did not include an Asian speaking character. And those characters are, more often than not, supporting characters at best; only 17 of 2014’s top 100 films featured a non-white lead or co-lead.
As depressingly homogenous as those numbers are, they’re positively diverse compared to representation on the other side of the camera. The Annenberg study found that only five of the 107 directors of 2014’s top 100 films were black, and only one of those five was a woman. Over the past seven years, only 45 black directors have been attached to those top 700 films, helming just 5.8% of them; only 19 Asian directors (only one of them female, and a co-director at that) were connected to those 700 films, for an overall percentage of 2.4%.
In other words, fewer opportunities are created for actors of color to receive Oscar recognition because so few roles are created for actors of color – and much of the blame for that lies in how few opportunities are created for filmmakers of color to tell their stories. So back, then, to the big question: How does this industry create more of those opportunities?
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One of the key points that Spike Lee has hit, on social media and in television interviews, is that the real responsibility for the whiteness of mainstream product lies at the feet of “the gatekeepers,” who “decide what gets made and what gets jettisoned to ‘turnaround’ or scrap heap.” These gatekeepers, the argument goes, are overwhelmingly white – and are thus more likely to assign their resources to filmmakers who look like them, and are telling stories that resonate with their own experience (and, conversely, less likely to finance films and filmmakers that don’t).
This rings true to Roger Ross Williams, the first African-American director to win an Oscar (Best Documentary Short Subject, Music by Prudence, 2009) and recent winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s Documentary Directing prize for Life, Animated. “I totally agree with Spike,” he says. “The ‘gatekeepers’ who are white wanna entrust their money and stories to people who they can relate to. So people of color are left out. I won an Oscar, won best director at Sundance and still can’t get an agent. I’m pretty much invisible to Hollywood.”
“For lack of a better word, I think ‘gatekeeper’ is somewhat accurate,” says Anderson Vilien, a Directors Guild of America member and assistant director for television and such films as Straight Outta Compton and the forthcoming Jason Bourne. “It smells a little more intentional or deliberate, and I don’t know that there’s someone actually deliberately keeping the gates, saying ‘I’m not going to let you because of this,’ although there may very well be.”
Vilien sees Hollywood’s problem as something more ingrained. “My idea of this is that it’s the infrastructure,” he explains. “And there’s not diversity. People are going to be around the people that they’re familiar with, and they’re going to open up opportunities for people, like their friends; just the same way I open opportunities for the people that I’m friends with. And that’s kind of a diverse group, a couple white guys, black guys, Puerto Rican, but that’s how I grew up, with the relationships that I had. It’s a mirror, or a microcosm, of the actual infrastructure. Those are the people who going to benefit from it.”
Geoff LaTulippe, whose screenplay Going the Distance was produced by Warner Brothers in 2010, also agrees with Lee, while seeing underrepresentation as “a subconscious issue rather than an overt one. While there are absolutely racists in Hollywood – just like there are everywhere else – this is more an issue of inaction and laziness than it is a purposeful attempt to keep women and people of color out of the industry. And that is, I think, almost worse in its implications, because it gives the straight white men at the top an excuse to take a pass on responsibility: ‘Hey, I’m not keeping anyone out!’ That may be true on the surface, but if you’re not actively looking for other voices and viewpoints, aren’t you part of the problem regardless?”
Indeed. So how do filmmakers and storytellers outside of those circles penetrate them? “The cheapest way for the industry to radically improve the quality of its content and its overall economics is to diversify on all fronts,” notes Franklin Leonard, the former Universal Pictures executive who founded The Black List, the yearly survey of Hollywood’s most popular unproduced screenplays. But such diversification must occur on all levels – throughout the entire administrative and creative structure. It’s not just a question of directors or executives; it’s the interns who read the spec scripts, the agents who package scripts with directors and actors, the producers who determine what scripts to develop.
But there have to be stories to tell, and that’s where it can get tricky. As Cole Wiley says, “The best way I can put it is this: Privilege. It’s only one word, but film and television are mediums of privilege. And when it comes to the art world, they’re probably the ultimate mediums of privilege, because they cost the most to produce.” Wiley is a product of the NYU graduate film school, where he studied under Spike Lee; Lee is attached as executive producer to his debut feature, After the Storm, which he’s spent the past six years trying to get made.
“If I’m a painter, if I’m a sculptor, if I play music, I can do a lot of those things without having to spend a lot of money,” Wiley says. “But when you’re making films or television at a major level, it’s very costly. There’s a lot of upfront money that has to be put in the mix. And to even just swim in the circles in which people are able to write those checks and bring those resources together, that’s a whole other conversation. And, to be honest, in a lot of instances people of color are not often in those circles, as a part of their life.”
LaTulippe, who is white but has advised screenwriters of all ethnicities through his website and his “Six Week Spec” script contest on Twitter, sees this as a key issue as well. “We’re not encouraging writers of all walks of life at a nascent level,” he says. “In general, you’ll find much more positive reinforcement towards a desire to write – and simply be creative in general – if you’re a white male than you are if you’re a woman or a person of color. There seems to be an almost inherent sense that writing is somehow ‘not for them,’ which couldn’t possibly be further from the truth and is a dangerous point of view for society to foster. If you unpack it a bit, it makes sense – one writer I talked to a while back summed it up as, ‘My parents and grandparents didn’t risk their lives and bust their asses through the pre- and post-Civil Rights era for me to get an MFA.’ And I think that’s an understandable fear for first-generation Americans or those who are just now starting to creep towards equal rights especially – that those who came before them did so, so they could become doctors and lawyers and engineers and have the same opportunities that male, white kids do. And that’s not difficult to appreciate. The problem is that such a cultural mindset can snuff out creative voices before they even form.”
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“Ultimately, it’s going to take creatives, film executives, entrepreneurs – people to go out into the world,” Wiley says. “If there’s a hole in the marketplace, your job is to identify and target that hole and stick your finger in it and find some way to address it.”
And how do they do that? Presuming executives, producers, and the people who work for them aren’t perusing Vimeo pages and student film showcases looking for new voices – though that wouldn’t be a bad idea – there are some programs aimed at amplifying those voices. “Diversity programs open a lot of doors,” LaTulippe says, “but there are so few of them that it hardly registers on a large scale. So it would seem like more of those would be an immediate need, but not a ‘fix.’”
One of the most important is the Directors Guild of America’s trainee program, of which Vilien (who is African-American) is an alum. He speaks glowingly of the program and what it’s done for him: “It’s to open up opportunities to those who want to be in the industry that wouldn’t otherwise have those opportunities because they don’t have the relationships, the connections, or the birthright… As a whole, it’s a great inroad. I very much believe that you’re going to get out what you put in, within reason. But I’d be blind were I to say the inroad is a little bit more difficult if you’re not a white male. That’s just the reality of the situation.”
And, he adds, “We could definitely use more like them.” This is key – not just the programs available to filmmakers of color, but the aggressiveness with which this industry could recruit from film and writing programs, given the desire. In contrast to Silicon Valley or Wall Street, Hollywood doesn’t send its recruiters to the best schools to bulk up their work force, for purposes of either talent or diversity; they rely on personal networks, or on the rare filmmaker who can fight low budgets, lack of resources, and overall noise to make their voice heard. “If you’re a director, you go in and you make some really dope stuff,” Vilien says. “And you draw attention to your art and you could break the wall that way.” But it’s rare – rarer than it should be. And on top of all that, the film schools of note are often exorbitantly expensive, offered at private universities and/or as graduate programs, yet another disadvantage for filmmakers whose limited means and educational backgrounds might make tuition, living expenses, and project funding that much harder to come by.
What’s more, these solutions take time. Even aggressive recruiting means producers and executives will spend months, even years developing new talent. So what about established filmmakers, like Williams, who are ready to work? Lee suggests something akin to the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” which requires teams to interview at least one candidate of color during the hiring process for each senior position. It’s not a quota system – they’re not required to hire, merely to interview – but it at least gets new voices and viewpoints into those rooms.
Yet such requirements could also cause the same kind of bristling pushback that has met the Academy’s attempts to diversify its voting pool. “People are going to hire who they’re going to hire, in my opinion,” Vilien says. “No one is going to force anyone else’s hand. As long as those people are the one who are calling the shots and green-lighting the movies, then what can you really do?
“I don’t know that there’s an easier, more practical solution… It’s tough.”
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At times, it feels like the opening up of Hollywood may be something we just have to wait out. But the sluggishness at the top – both of the studios and of the Academy – belies the reality that changes are already beginning to happen. “Because the history of the film industry isn’t exactly littered with diversity, you’ll see them cling to old IP for reboots, reimaginings, and remakes in order to hold their ground,” LaTulippe explains. “Because it comes with a built-in excuse either way – if it hits, they’re safe; if it tanks, it’s, ‘Hey, it worked before, how could we have known?’ It’s that general inability to look forward that’s probably going to be the studio system’s undoing, and it’s all based in fear.”
“That’s just how the industry thinks; it’s very reactive,” Wiley says. “They’re not very innovative in a lot of ways. So somebody has the audacity to make Straight Outta Compton and now you’ll probably see every rap biopic ever.… The studios are big and slow. It’s like expecting any big, slow corporation, in any given industry, to change dramatically.”
Vilien agrees. “I hate to say it, but I think I’m definitely leaning more towards the idea of a changing of the guard, you know? And I don’t know if that’s practical.”
But Wiley sees this, like so many cultural shifts, as a generational question. “I’m 33, so I’m a little younger, but I’m grown…. Our demographic is just now getting to the point where we’re having some real influence and control over what is happening. Then you go even younger – and they’re even more progressive or just as progressive as we aspire to be – they don’t have that leverage, they don’t have that clout yet.”
So where do they go in the meantime? Where they’ve always gone: to the independents. “Independent film is one of the few places our stories as people of color are getting told.” Williams says. “Film festivals like Sundance are leading the way in promoting new, fresh voices. Look at the talent that has come out of Sundance as award winners: Lee Daniels, Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Nate Parker.”
And this is where the argument gets persuasive, because today’s indie faves become tomorrow’s studio moneymakers, and no color is as powerful in Hollywood as green. “I think what it’s going to take is for some people to wake up and see, at least, the financial implications of tapping new and varied POVs for content,” LaTulippe says, “and setting up a pipeline to acquire and develop just that.”
A shift in priorities and process isn’t unprecedented, either. Just a few years ago, common wisdom had it that you couldn’t open a female-driven action movie. Now, thanks to the Hunger Games and Divergent franchises, Lucy, Snow White and the Huntsman, and many more to come, that notion has been proven as silly and outdated as it always sounded. And just since last summer, you had Straight Outta Compton gross $201 million worldwide (on a $28 million budget), followed by Creed with $170 million (off $35 million), and Ride Along 2 with $109 million (off $40 million). People of color want to see their stories on screen – and so, frequently, do white people. It’s a win-win.
The film industry should embrace inclusivity because it’s the right thing to do – but let’s not kid ourselves, that’s not what makes things happen in Hollywood. So to put it in terms that inspire action: the film industry should embrace inclusivity because it’s money lying on the ground. Now it’s just a question of who’s going to pick it up, and when.