What the Oscars Should Be Doing

The Oscars are the epitome of classic tinseltown glamour, having initially begun in 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to an audience of around 250 people. There’s no doubt then that these awards have always radiated prestige, but with big budget film-making comes exclusivity. For the second year in a row, Academy nominations have been thoroughly whitewashed. Actors such as Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation) and Michael B. Jordan (Creed) have been snubbed, and so have Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriquez – two transgender actresses who starred in Tangerine. Although Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are nominated for their performance in Carol, the film itself has been ignored from the Best Director and Picture list.

It’s easy for us to say the Oscars are boring and in terms of it being an actual film accolade they don’t mean much. Culturally however, they leave a heavier mark. Look at the massive following for Leonardo DiCaprio: the endless jokes over whether or not he will get an Oscar. While this is ‘just a laugh’, there is slight implication DiCaprio is not a respected actor until he’s got the award.

At the heart of it the Oscars are severely lacking in diversity. It’s easy for us to say ‘it should just be about the actor/director/writer’s talent, not their race/gender/sexuality!’ In an ideal world, yes, equal opportunities are fantastic. You’d have to be a Bond villain to not support that statement, but that’s not what’s happening here. The Academy is the arrowhead for an industry that favours those who are white, especially white heterosexual men. This lack of representation trickles down to the foundations – there just aren’t enough roles or opportunities for people of colour, women, or those in the LGBTQ+ category. The roles available are usually extremely stereotyped and women have to deal with being solely the protagonist’s love-interest, or have their performance hypersexualised.

I did some research into this as I’m not qualified to speak for marginalised individuals at all, and found a site called the Representation Project that published their findings over diversity in film while also looking into opportunities for directors/writers in Hollywood. The results are shocking –  representation is lacking, and we should all be angry about it.

Firstly, Steve McQueen won an Oscar for Best Picture in 2013, the first movie directed by a black man to do so. Last year, Alfonso Cuarón became the first Latin-American to win Best Director for Gravity. Lupita Nyong’o was the latest out of the 7 black women to win an Academy Award, with Halle Berry being the first and (sadly) the last black woman to have won Best Actress in 2002 for her role in Monster’s Ball. Berry believed her win was a real watershed event: “It’s heart-breaking because I thought that moment was bigger than me. Maybe it wasn’t. And I so desperately felt like it was”.

The Representation Project then investigated the percentage of women of colour in the top 500 box office films (rankings based on 2014’s box office takings). These statistics revealed there is next to zero inclusion, with only 6 out of the 500 highest grossing box office films starring a protagonist who is a woman of colour. Only one is a live action film – Sister Act. These are some of the top films of all time, the ones our parents insist on us watching because ‘it’s a classic!’ and the ones that new upcoming directors/producers, especially with a Hollywood budget, try to emulate. It’s a never-ending cycle and perhaps with the Oscars promising to double their membership of women and minorities by 2020, a change could be in the works. This pledge has been met with relatively positive feedback, including from Will Smith, who praised the Academy’s quick response to the situation. On the other hand, Ava DuVernay, the first black filmmaker to earn a Golden Globe with Selma, felt that the Oscars had plenty of chances for proactivity. She tweeted, “Marginalized artists have advocated for Academy change for DECADES. Actual campaigns. Calls voiced FROM THE STAGE. Deaf ears. Closed minds.”

The Project also found that anyone who fits into these three categories are ‘risks’ –  big budget studios would rather gamble on having a white heterosexual man as the lead. What a surprise. Talented female directors with films under their belts are overlooked in favour of hiring male directors despite them lacking experience in the Hollywood film sector. Tangerine is one of the films snubbed for nominations this year. The very idea of a film starring two transgender actresses, portraying the social and economic struggles of sex workers in LA, is so rare and so niche it’s been kicked into the ‘indie’ category. Instead we’ve been given Eddie Redmayne – his portrayal of Lili Elbe comes hand in hand with an underlying suggestion being trans is merely a drag act. Meanwhile, Jennifer Lawrence continues to prove that by starring in the exact same films with the exact same director and shouting at Bradley Cooper in the exact same style warrants three Best Actress nominations.

It’s important to not forget the contribution that people of colour, and LGBTQ+ have made to Hollywood and to film. Films such as Selma and Straight Outta Compton are fantastic, emotive films capturing the social and economic injustices for black people whilst highlighting many on-going struggles today. Carol is a great step forward for lesbians on film – both Mara and Blanchett’s performances are reflective of a real relationship and love between two women that is neither overly sexualised nor ending in tragedy (think Brokeback Mountain). However, while it can be argued the Oscars are slowly stepping forward with their representation – there is still wider ignorance within the film industry. Joseph Fiennes recently found himself as “shocked as anyone” to be cast as Michael Jackson in an upcoming short for Sky Arts.

Film is a medium that deserves more than the majority of writers, directors and actors being white heterosexual men with next to no first-hand experience of the stories they’re telling. There are so many fantastic people of colour or LGBTQ+ actors and directors out there, their films exist and watching them is more rewarding than some of the mediocre and repetitive Hollywood film formulas that crawl out the woodwork come Oscar season. Tangerine and Carol have both been overlooked but they are some of the best films this year, and so hopefully an internalised change within a top film platform could trickle down to affect the whole industry.  The Oscars and the Academy itself, instead of merely symbolising classic Hollywood glamour, have a collective responsibility towards the celebration of film diversity.

[Emma McKie]


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