Film industry lacks diversity despite this year’s Oscar nominations

Georgia Davis / Staff Writer

When he was younger, Vincent Stubbs frequented movie theaters with his father. Though he often did not see characters that resembled his identity as an Asian-American, he still left entertained.

Stubbs, the president of the Asian Student Council, did not thoroughly consider the element of diversity in film until coming to Ohio University, he said.

“Now when I watch … Hollywood blockbuster films, I walk out feeling kind of ambivalent toward them,” Stubbs, a senior studying management information systems, said. “On one side, I feel entertained, but on the other side, I kind of feel like there is a knot in my stomach. They kind of use humor to cover up these subtle prejudices that these movies try to perpetuate.”

This year’s Academy Awards are said to be the most diverse in its history. Despite that observation, there are improvements to be made in American cinema when diversifying roles performed for the big screen.



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First actor to win an Oscar: Yul Brynner, 1957 Best Actor in a Leading Role for The King and I

First actress to win an Oscar: Miyoshi Umeki, 1958 Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Sayonara

First director to win an Oscar: Ang Lee, 2006 for Brokeback Mountain — He became the first non-white person to win Best Director.

Dev Patel is the first Indian actor to be nominated in 13 years for a supporting role in Lion in 2017.

Only three people of Asian descent have won an acting award.

Social movements

At the last two Academy Awards, there was a ‘white-out’ in the acting categories — out of 20 actors nominated, zero were people of color. The 89th ceremony will mark the first time black actors are present in all four acting categories. For the second year ever, a record-high seven people of color were nominated for acting, something that has not happened since 2007.

Film critics and observers noticed the lack of diversity in recent years, which prompted the trending #OscarsSoWhite movement. As the hashtag became popular, social media brought the problem to the forefront, Winsome Chunnu-Brayda, the strategic director for diversity and inclusion and multicultural programs and initiatives, said.

Social media can be credited as one contributing factor to the increase in actors of color among this year’s nominees, Chunnu-Brayda said. Because the filming industry has been branded with a diversity problem, more people are talking about it, thus leading to social change, she added.

A lack of diversity has been present in the cinematic universe, as people of color have often been underrepresented, Chunnu-Brayda said. When an actor of color plays a compelling and major role in a film, they often do not receive nominations.

“We can’t say, ‘Well, the actors (of color) who used to be acting before weren’t that great, and we have this new breed of black actors’ — it’s the same people, and they are now being recognized for their work all these years,” she said.

With the awareness of the lack of diversity, the Academy — the body of people who vote for Oscar nominees — may have realized it overlooked people of color in the past, Arthur Cromwell, an associate professor of media arts and studies, said.

“Awareness is always going to be the thing,” he said. “Awareness of what is not there, as well as awareness of those things that are there that perhaps are less than acceptable or that are old, out-moded, … all the way to stereotypical.”





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First actor to win an Oscar: José Ferrer, 1951 Best Actor in a Leading Role for Cyrano de Bergerac

First actress to win an Oscar: Rita Moreno, 1962 Best Actress in a Supporting Role for West Side Story  

First director to win an Oscar: Alfonso Cuarón, 2014 for Gravity

Benicio del Toro is the only actor who has won for a Spanish-speaking part for his supporting role in Traffic.

No Latina actress has won Best Actress in a Leading Role.

Portrayal and commonalities

Even when non-white people are cast as the primary subject of a film, they often portray stereotypical roles.

Halle Berry won an Oscar for her role in Monster’s Ball, a part that was overtly sexual. Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington won an award for playing a bad cop in Training Day, but not for his role as Malcolm X in Malcolm X, Chunnu-Brayda pointed out.

There is also a trend of Hispanics acting as maids in films, Chunnu-Brayda said.

Gabriela Godinez, the vice president of the Latino Student Union, feels the Hispanic population is “fetishized” quite a bit in American cinema.

“It’s always like the hot Latina or the feisty Latina or a really macho Latino,” Godinez, a junior studying integrated media, said. “It’s almost like they’re a token or a prop rather than an essential character.”

Hispanic representation in American cinema has improved since its conception because Hispanics are in films at all, even as minor characters, Godinez said. There are still not enough Hispanics in main roles, and the films often tell the same narrative, she added. She noticed when a film deals with the topics of food, a “crazy” lifestyle or drugs, Hispanics are usually at the forefront.

One movie Godinez saw that diversified its casting was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Although she praised the film for creating a diverse cast, she said there is still a level of unrealisticness because the film takes place in an alternate universe that does not reflect realities on Earth.

Rogue One is also the first Star Wars film to feature main characters who are Asian, according to Den of Geek.

Overall, Stubbs thinks the portrayal of Asians in the film industry is negative. In the film Doctor Strange, Stubbs noticed a white actress, Tilda Swinton, was casted as The Ancient One, a role he felt should have been played by an Asian actor. When directors cast white people in roles made for someone of color, it is perceived as “white-washing” the film, he said.  

Stubbs thinks certain Hollywood blockbusters would benefit from diversifying its casts.

“When you make a cast more diverse, it directly impacts the script because you have to change the way that the actors interact with each other and how the plot develops,” he said. “When we talk about races, I wouldn’t say that different races behave differently from each other — I would say that they interact differently.”



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First actor to win an Oscar: Sidney Poitier, 1964 Best Actor in a Leading Role in Lilies of the Field

First actress to win an Oscar: Hattie McDaniel, 1940 Best Actress in a Supporting Role in Gone With the Wind

First director to win an Oscar: No black directors have took home the award for Best Director.

Joi McMillon became the first black woman to be nominated in the editing category for Moonlight in 2017.

Barry Jenkins is the fourth black person to be nominated for Best Director and could be the first to win in the category for Moonlight.

Economics and movie making

Because the success of a movie is based on how well it performs at the box office, producers and directors cast people they think will bring larger audiences. The people making films are in the business to make money, and they want to make back what was spent and more, Chunnu-Brayda said.

“When you look at the research around audiences, one of the things they talk about is if there are more than two black persons in a film, it’s considered a black film, and that’s not what white audiences want to see,” she said. “At the end of the day, they are creating movies for a demographic that, in their mind, will generate the economic outcome that they would like to see for their investment.”

Akil Houston, an associate professor of African-American studies, noted two films that were victorious at the box office and featured predominantly black casts — Selma and 12 Years a Slave. When people who are traditionally marginalized are highlighted in successful films such as those, more people of color are present in the Academy Awards’ acting categories, he added.

The power to create more diverse films lies with the people who green-light productions, Houston said. When producers see more films with diverse casting, they will be more inclined to give the go-ahead on productions.    

“People have the stories to tell — they just need opportunities to tell those stories,” he said. “The people who are in the money position to say, ‘Yes, we can make this film, with this cast makeup’ — that’s where the real change has to happen.”

The U.S. has always been a place of diversity, Houston said, but most stories told through film meet heteronormative, white standards. As more people of marginalized groups get in positions of power, he said casting choices will diversify and box-office numbers will respond because most people want to relate to the characters in films.

“Most people, when they go to see a movie, they hope that they can see some part of who they are or what they are,”  Houston said. “Like any other group in the United States, it would be cool to see yourself.”

Development by: Hannah Debenham / Digital Production Editor

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