This year’s Academy Awards saw many firsts for the film industry.
12 Years a Slave’s won Best Picture on Mar. 2, making the film’s director, Steve McQueen, the first black man to ever win this award. Alfonso Cuarón became the first Mexican filmmaker to take home the award for best director for the space thriller Gravity. Lupita Nyong’o won best supporting actress, becoming just the seventh black woman to win an Oscar for acting.
After watching the show for many years, I felt this telecast was a breath of fresh air. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of joy to see the Academy taking strides towards diversity. But it’s still not enough.
Looking at the Canadian Screen Awards that happened in the past week, the telecast recognized French and Aboriginal talents. This year, two films about Aboriginal people (Empire of Dirt and Maïna) were nominated for Best Motion Picture. Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, a French actress with Williams syndrome, took home the prize for Best Actress for the film Gabrielle.
Seeing Canada honouring aspects of its culture at the awards gala gave me a sense of pride. Having become increasingly disillusioned by the obvious racial and gender gaps among the nominees and winners at the Academy Awards, I wondered why Hollywood couldn’t do the same. And that’s when I realized, that not many people I know watch the CSAs in the first place. Whereas most of them, tune into the Academy Awards.
Behind the scenes, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are a homogeneous bunch. According to an infographic from a Diversity Gap study by Lee & Low Books, 94 per cent of Academy Awards voters are white and 77 per cent are male. The show is in its 86th year and only eight people of colour have ever won Oscars in the best actress or best actor categories. Kathryn Bigelow remains the only female to have won best director for 2010’s The Hurt Locker. Even more depressing is the fact that no actor of Latino, Asian or Native American descent has won an acting Oscar in the last 10 years.
This lack of wins isn’t surprising when most films star white actors with a couple of supporting characters of different ethnicities sprinkled in. As a Chinese Canadian woman, I have yet to see an Asian character star in a mainstream film that isn’t playing a math whiz, the wimpy sidekick, an exotic beauty or a master of martial arts.
But the problem with Hollywood’s lack of diversity may also lie in what audiences want to see.
“Gradually, you’ll see more Asian-Americans or other ethnicities [in film] but it’s a long slow process,” said Jason Anderson, a film critic at The Grid. “When people see Hollywood movies, people expect to see white people and it’s hard to change that.”
Anderson gives mention to the successful Fast and the Furious franchise, which not only features Asian actors but also an Asian director. Anderson also says that people generally still won’t want to see something that doesn’t resonate with them.
It’s seems simple to say that Hollywood needs to be less ignorant but like in anything else money rules.
“It takes money to change minds. They’re not going to be socially progressive for the sake of it,” Anderson said. Unless its financially proven that audiences want to see movies with characters of diversity, we won’t see an even representation of colour in film.
He notes that director Tyler Perry has been fairly successful targeting his films towards black audiences. “If there was somebody from an East Indian background or a Korean background able to do that somehow then there would be more products targeted to those audiences.”
Though considering that comedies and blockbusters like these are rarely recognized in major categories, the Academy has its work cut out. But, change is in the air. In 2013, Cheryl Boone Isaacs was the first black woman to become president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Since then, there’s been a significant increase of interest in films with black leads like 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
But while I’m delighted to see these stories portrayed on the big screen, I’d just like to remind the Academy that there are several other important stories waiting to be told. The diversity gap is still very evident. And what we have right now still isn’t enough.