Receiving thunderous applause, Chris Rock walked to center stage at the 88th Academy Awards.
“Man, I counted at least 15 black people in that montage,” he said. “Well I’m here at the Academy Awards, also known as the White People’s Choice Awards.”
He wasn’t too far from the truth.
In 2014, the Academy was overwhelmingly comprised of white males, with 94 percent of the members being white and 75 percent male. The demographics change little from year to year, even with an effort to diversify the members, as membership is for life and few vacancies arise. The Academy has been criticized for the lack of diversity and for honoring mostly white films.
During the Oscars, Rock continuously made jokes about the underrepresentation of black people in films and in the award nominations, at the same time promoting a message that the film industry needs to diversify. Many black actors deserve to be lauded for performances every year, yet Rock failed to mention other racial and ethnic groups that are underrepresented — as much, if not more so — than African-Americans in Hollywood.
Roles in film are not much more diverse than the members of the Academy. A study by the University of Southern California that studied 700 films across seven years and 30,000 characters showed 75 percent of film characters were white and only 17 percent of the top 100 movies featured lead or supporting characters who were not white. Fifteen percent of lead roles for minorities go to black actors, followed by only 2.7 percent Latino actors. Asians account for just 1.3 percent. Every other racial or ethnic group is cumulatively represented at 3.4 percent.
The way Hollywood is composed is not even close to being a representative makeup of the population.
So the #OscarsSoWhite controversy isn’t so shocking after seeing the inequality of opportunities for actors and actresses. They simply cannot win awards for roles that don’t exist.
Sometimes, actors and actresses of color are hired to play stereotypical roles — the black best friend, the sassy Latina nanny, the Asian kung fu master — that often are one-dimensional representations of a race or ethnicity and don’t allow for the exploration of complex identities. This, in part, is due to the prevalence of white male screenwriters, directors and producers in the film industry.
If the people writing these roles into existence have little to no knowledge about what it’s like to be a minority in America or about the distinct cultures that come with these races and ethnicities, how are they supposed to create complex ,diverse characters?
It’s not that white male writers can’t write complex roles for minorities, but that a lot of writers pull from their own experiences. In that sense, bringing minority writers would help bring attention to the nuances of ethnic, racial and gender disparities.
When writers have personal experiences with these they can create a better portrayal of minority characters.
So the inclusion of more minorities in the behind-the-scenes work could set up the opportunity for more comprehensive roles in the industry. There should be more of a push to encourage women and racially diverse individuals to become directors, producers and screenwriters.
The world of television seems to be making bigger strides in this area with shows that include dynamic casts with minority characters.
Shows like “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy” boast diverse casts full of complex characters. These series were created by television producer and writer Shonda Rhimes, a black woman, and are examples that show it is possible to manage diversity without making the series explicitly about the topic.
Meanwhile other shows like “Black-ish” and “Fresh off the Boat” are meant to focus on these aspects of diversity in an accurate and realistic way. These shows represent minorities without stereotypical attributes and are still popular shows, proving that the two are not mutually exclusive. “Jane the Virgin,” which is based on a telenovela, and has a lot of Latin influences and a majority Latino cast, has won a Peabody award and a Golden Globe nomination.
Diversity in film and television shouldn’t be just for the sake of having a diverse character. These representations should be diverse in themselves. And although the industries have made strides to include minority actors and actresses, these actions are not enough. There is still more that can be done to improve upon the diversity in this field.
There are many untold stories of minorities that could be explored through film. And there are many great actors and actresses that are not chosen for roles because of their skin color or ethnicity.
Not telling these stories and not hiring these actors is a missed opportunity to give Hollywood a fresher, less-white face.