The Academy Awards Diversity Gap

I’ll be the first to admit that regardless of all its hype and elitism, I love the glitz and glam of the Oscars. I am completely enamored with the red carpet coverage, the cheeky hosting, and the emotional acceptance speeches. But it isn’t hard to see that the people accepting those awards have been, well, monochromatic. I’m talking white and for the majority, male.

Just in time for the Awards this Sunday, Lee & Low Books, an independent children’s book publisher specializing in diversity, released this infographic about the lack of diversity in Academy Award winners since the inception of the Awards 85 years ago. Whether it’s what you’d expect or not, the results are devastating. Only one woman of color has ever won an award for Best Actress, and that was Halle Berry in 2002. Only seven men of color have ever won for Best Actor, the last one being Forest Whitaker eight years ago, and only one woman has ever won for Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow. The Academy voters as well are overwhelmingly white males.

Some people may say, “but look, this year three minority actors are nominated, one being a woman, and they have good chances of winning!” As much as I admire these actors and their performances, there’s still one thing that bothers me about the roles for which they are nominated. Each of their roles specifically called for an actor or actress of their race, meaning there was no way a white person could have been cast for those roles anyway. In an interview for Lee & Low, actor/writer/director Jason Chan explained that when it comes to casting, “The default is always Caucasian unless something else is specifically asked for.” What I would like to see is a person of a minority background getting recognition (and I mean the kind of mainstream recognition that the Oscars provides, because let’s face it, unless you’re a film buff, that’s what you’re paying attention to) for a role that could be ethnically ambivalent. We need to show that not only white actors and actresses are capable of taking challenging leading roles and of being role models to the millions of people who watch and admire them.

I know that the Academy is not the be-all, end-all of the film world. Thankfully, independent filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, Secret Life of Bees) states in the same interview with Lee & Low that the independent world is many steps ahead of major studios in including diversity in their productions, both in front and behind the cameras.

Once we see more diversity on the production side, maybe we’ll see the same on screen. The recent census shows that for the first time, the majority of babies born (50.6%) in the United States are minorities. When will the media start reflecting this change as well?

-Julie Takla ’16