Oscars Still So White: Hollywood’s Diversity Problem

Article In The Thread
March 7, 2023

And the Oscar goes to…

On March 12th, we’ll finally learn who the Academy deems the best of the best in their upcoming 95th awards ceremony. This year’s ceremony is especially notable with critical and box office success Everything Everywhere All at Once leading as the most nominated film of the season.

With a historic number of nominations for Asian and Asian-American performers, finally getting the recognition they deserve, there still remains glaring diversity gaps in Hollywood. Films with Black leads and directors such as Nope, Till, and The Woman King received no nominations, the Lead Actor category had no actors of color represented, and no women were nominated for Best Director.

Representation in the Movie Industry

These snubs have reawakened #OscarsSoWhite, the hashtag created by activist April Reign in 2015, has drawn attention to the motion picture industry’s racist founding. After all, the Birth of a Nation was the first feature-length motion picture in the United States and the first to be screened in the White House. Additionally, the Academy Awards were created as a union-busting effort and to help rehabilitate the image of Hollywood. Even as the awards highlight the notable achievements of actors, directors, and other individuals in the industry, it often serves as a mirror, reflecting all the work that still needs to be done to create a more equitable world for us all — both on and off the screen.

Voila Davis as Aibileen Clark in The Help (2011) and Nanisca in The Woman King (2022).

Media representation, especially in film, has long held the power to influence and shape our cultural attitudes. And often, movies depict people from historically marginalized backgrounds as only one type of character or narrative, sending the message that experiences outside of the prescribed cultural script are not valuable or worth being told. Additionally, these works must then carry the weight of being a representation of an entire group, a burden too great for any one work or person to bear. The narrow scope of these films also creates tensions between historically marginalized groups who are forced to operate within a scarcity mindset, one where there is only ever space for one diverse narrative.

A great example of this is in relation to The Woman King. While many viewers lauded the film for its nuanced portrayals of Black women, others called for the movie to be boycotted given its editorializing of the Dahomey kingdom’s participation in the slave trade. While The Woman King was a fictional tale, the creators were forced to justify their artistic decisions given the lack of representation of Black people in film. Nevertheless, it still was able to have notable commercial success and debuted at #1 at the box office. Subsequently, when Everything Everywhere All at Once was nominated for Best Picture, countless articles emerged drawing attention to the fact that The Woman King was shut out from the awards, indirectly pitting these two remarkable films against one another. When award shows predominantly nominate and celebrate white and male artists while overlooking the successful works of BIPOC and women creators, it perpetuates the idea that the contributions of the latter are not as significant or worthy of praise. And marginalized groups are left to fight amongst themselves instead of drawing attention to the systemic issues that perpetuate this inequitable environment.

Hollywood’s Racial Reckoning

After movements like #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite, nominations have grown increasingly diverse in recent years following demands for more accurate representation within the industry. However, despite these efforts, change is happening slowly. Just last year, the 2022 Golden Globes were boycotted over long standing criticisms due its lack of diverse nominations and outrage over their 87 member voting body — the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) — lacking any Black members. In response to the controversy, the HFPA announced their commitment to a series of internal reforms, but many felt these measures didn’t go far enough to address the systemic issues within the industry. While the HFPA's attempts to reform are a step in the right direction, they must be accompanied by a deeper commitment to make the industry more inclusive. It remains to be seen what the long-term impact of the boycott will have on the Golden Globes and the entertainment industry as a whole. However, one thing is clear: The calls for change will not be silenced, and the entertainment industry must listen and take accountability in order to remain relevant and reflective of the world we live in.

Left to Right: Stephanie Hsu, Michelle Yeoh, and Ke Huy Quan in Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022).

And still, underrepresented groups are commonly left out of award season conversations. Historically, nominations for prestigious acting and directing categories have largely been white. In a recent initiative by USC Annenberg called the Inclusion List, researchers found that since the inception of the Academy Awards (including the 2023 ceremony), 17 percent of all nominees were women, “while only 6 percent were people of color and less than 2 percent of nominees were women of color.” The percentage of winners is similar with women, people of color, and women of color receiving 16 percent, 6 percent, and 2 percent of wins respectively.

This year marks a record number for Asian talent nominated in the Academy Awards’ major categories, with Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan’s performances in Everything Everywhere All at Once leading the charge. If they win, both would make history in their respective categories. Yeoh in particular is widely considered the first Asian-identifying actress to be nominated for Best Actress, and if she wins, would become only the second woman of color awarded in that category. The first Asian woman to be nominated in the same category was Merle Oberon in 1935 — in a time when Hollywood did not provide opportunities to non-white actors.

James Hong as Khan in Chinatown (1974).

The industry has come a long way since Oberon had to falsify documents and lean into her ability to pass as white to create a career for herself. In an emotional speech from industry titan James Hong at the 2023 Screen Actors Guild Awards, he discussed his start in Hollywood and his experiences with racism in the industry. Referencing the 1937 film The Good Earth, Hong noted how lead roles were given to white actors in yellow face, because the producer believed that “Asians were not good enough and they are not box office.”

While actors are the most visible form of representation to the audience, Hollywood also lacks opportunities for diverse individuals behind the camera as well. The Reframe Initiative, launched by Sundance Institute, Women in Film, and IMDbPro in 2017, found that within the top 100 productions of 2022, hiring levels of women remained flat year over year with “no significant gains”' in director and writer roles. Meanwhile, the number of women of color hired as directors and writers fell. The role of film executives and voting members of the Academy should also not be overlooked in their importance in creating opportunities to tell more varied stories. As Hollywood makes strides in leveling the playing field, they must not let up. Because even though current gains were hard fought, they can be so easily lost.

To Build a More Innovative Entertainment Industry, We Need Diversity

The lack of diversity in the entertainment industry not only impacts underrepresented groups, but also stifles the potential of the industry as a whole. When the voices of people from different backgrounds are elevated, new stories and perspectives emerge, leading to greater creativity and innovation. Moreover, diversity in media is not simply a matter of fairness or equality. The success of domestic films like Moonlight, Crazy Rich Asians, and Black Panther, or international films such as South Korea’s Parasite and India’s RRR, demonstrate that movies featuring diverse casts can be both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. Creating content that resonates with a wider audience and reflects the variety apparent within our increasingly global society is crucial to the film industry’s future. It’s long past time for Hollywood to get the picture.

You May Also Like

We Need Black Women on Screen, We Need The Woman King (The Thread, 2022): Deconstructing the portrayal of Black femininity on screen, The Woman King puts the strength of dark-skinned Black women on display.

The Politics of Going to the Movies (New America Weekly, 2018): The release of Black Panther prompted Black movie-goers to reflect on the challenges of being Black in majority-white spaces.

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