In the past few weeks, there has been a lot of controversy regarding the lack of diversity in Oscar nominees and in the Academy. This is a very necessary discussion to have, however uncomfortable it is, because Hollywood is still overwhelmingly white. There is nothing wrong with being white; there is no need to ostracize anyone of white or European origin. And I do not believe that multiculturalism and diversity should be evaluated in the same way in different settings: academic curriculum, for example, is not the same as looking at racial profiling by police. However, it is important to understand why Hollywood continues not to reflect the diversity in American society nor the various points of view that are so vital to American culture.
What are some of the reasons that there are so few minorities in Hollywood, especially in terms of power players? Blaming the voters who choose the nominees is like looking at the source of the problem down river instead of upstream. That is, so many steps have filtered out the choices that by the time these choices arrive at the ballots for the Oscars, there is not so much diversity. We have to go back further.
Hollywood was white at its founding. Even in the era of silent films (which are beautiful works of art), we seldom see Black people. This was, naturally, and sadly, a reflection of an earlier society. The trend continued into “talkies”; we might start to see a Black person here or there, tap dancing, serving, or, at its worst, stereotyped or shown as servants. Hollywood was also the beneficiary of gifted artists from Europe who came to make a fresh start in the United States. These legendary filmmakers and directors and film-related professionals brought a wonderfully aesthetic European eye to the film world, and many of us grew up on these stunning classics and still enjoy them immensely. However, with some exceptions (such as Otto Preminger, who championed – and romanced — the gorgeous and talented Dorothy Dandridge), these film industry people carried with them a very white sensibility that reflected the cultures from which they came. This in and of itself is not to be blamed. The problem is that this mentality did not evolve.
Through the 50s and 60s, as American society began to change, Hollywood was slow to embrace these changes. The images of families–white families–in bourgeois suburban settings were the norm. Many white actors, directors, and writers themselves were blacklisted because of the unfounded fear of communism. Slowly, as civil rights began to be granted to all Americans, we began to see more African-Americans as well as other minority performers such as Rita Moreno or Harry Belafonte. Movies occasionally touched on these sensitive topics, such as “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”, but anything to do with minorities was few and far between. Through the 70s, when Americans were finally equal by law, we began to see more representation of non-whites on screen, but still, this was proportionally low. The 80s and 90s brought more Blacks to the forefront, and in the 90s, we began to see other ethnicities such as Latinos, Asians, Native Americans represented. Through the new millennium, we have seen an even greater push for diversity, which is necessary.
Given such a history of a non-progressive industry, we have to look at the people who are choosing the actors to perform in films: the casting agents. How many of them come from an upbringing or city that was diverse? How many of them are nonwhite? How many of them grew up in all-white suburbs or small towns, knowing very little about Native Americans, Blacks, or immigrants? Especially if their perspectives were shaped by media through the 50s and 60s? How many of them have mixed with a wide variety of classes, even? Does it matter if the cop in a police scene is white or non-white? Does it matter in a commercial, a white actor selling toilet paper or a minority one? Pardon the paraphrased vulgarism, but everybody defecates.
After pointing the finger at casting agents, we need to look at the basis upon which films are made: the scripts. Who is writing them? A largely white group. What is their socioeconomic background? This may also play a part as to why there are so few minorities in Hollywood, because it takes a lot of sacrifice and risk on one’s part in terms of finances in order to pursue a Hollywood career. Perhaps it is people of means writing films as well as making them. And so, the scripts themselves reflect a lack of diversity. Just as in the literary publishing world where novels by Black authors are marketed towards Black audiences and not everybody, so it is in the movie business as well. Sure, they might say, there are “Black films” and there is Spike Lee, but that’s just for “their kind.” A producer or financial backers may opt for more “white” films rather than Black or other minority ones, because of what they think will sell. And how many nonwhites are financial backers for Hollywood films? It is an unwritten law in America that white is considered universal.
And just as financial status influences one’s choice of going into film writing or making, it influences going into acting. Many people simply cannot afford to go into acting. Also, many immigrant groups do not see it as a viable way of living, as actors go from job to job and it is financially unstable. For actors who do choose to make that leap, there is always the issue of typecasting: if you’re Latina woman, you will get cast as the maid; if you are South Asian or Middle Eastern, you will get cast as the terrorist. Hollywood has a hard time in seeing a femme fatale who is Pacific Islander, a superhero who is Black, a politician character who is Latino, etc. Hollywood is more comfortable with showing sensationalized gay sex or contact than it is with showing someone with dark skin. One could only imagine how hard it would be for a gay minority actor!
This is not to say that there aren’t many whites who do support diversity in whatever aspect of the film business they work in. Nor can we change the past; I personally find it easier to accept the lack of diversity in earlier films, given that it was the climate of the times. But now, it seems that there is no excuse, and that Hollywood is shamefully behind. Not only is it difficult for minorities, but it is also extremely difficult for women as well. While I am above all a believer in “art for art’s sake” and do not believe in doing things sheerly for political correctness, I do believe that Hollywood is still very much a conservative bastion of power that needs to question itself and include everybody, both the new and the old guard.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to work. That way, I will have time to go see “Spotlight” tomorrow.