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The struggle continues: Has #OscarsSoWhite really made Hollywood more diverse?

Opinion

The struggle continues: Has #OscarsSoWhite really made Hollywood more diverse?

Moonlight did not solve the problems of inclusion in the entertainment industry any more than the election of Barack Obama in 2008 solved racism and discrimination in the United States

April Reign is senior director of marketing for Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization, and creator of the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.

I created #OscarsSoWhite one January morning in 2015 as I watched the Academy Award nominations telecast. It struck me how homogeneous the nominees were. There were no people of colour in the best actor or actress categories or the best supporting actor or actress categories. Frustrated and disappointed, I grabbed my phone and took to Twitter, my social-media platform of choice. My tweet – "#OscarsSoWhite, they asked to touch my hair" – started a movement that continues to this day.

#OscarsSoWhite refers to all marginalized communities: race, age, people in gender-neutral categories, sexual orientation, the disabled and Indigenous peoples, among others. It is not about quotas, but about asking inclusion questions when staffing films, from the actors and actresses cast to the boom operators and craft-services teams hired. It is about operating outside of the same networks that have been used for years and providing opportunities to talented craftspeople from traditionally underrepresented communities.

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As we enter the fourth year of #OscarsSoWhite, there have been incremental changes in Hollywood. Begun under former president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has committed to doubling the number of women and people of colour in its membership by 2020. The Academy has also changed its voting structure such that those Academy members who have not been active in the film community for more than a decade will be ineligible to vote for nominees. This will hopefully encourage veteran filmmakers to revitalize their careers while becoming mentors to less-experienced filmmakers.

These changes appear to be making a difference with respect to nominations. The fact that we are seeing marginalized communities nominated for the first time in various categories, or for the first time in a long time, may be an indication that newer Academy members are taking their inclusion in the esteemed organization seriously and are being very thoughtful as they view films. For example, 2018 sees Rachel Morrison ( Mudbound) become the first female cinematographer to ever be nominated in the 90-year-history of the Academy Awards.

Similarly, Dee Rees ( Mudbound) is the first black woman to be nominated for best adapted screenplay.

Further, Ms. Rees is only the second black woman to be nominated for writing (Suzanne de Passe was nominated for best original screenplay for Lady Sings the Blues in 1972).

Greta Gerwig ( Lady Bird) is only the fifth woman in history to be nominated for the best director Oscar. Joining Ms. Gerwig is Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), just the fifth black and Latinx directors to receive nominations in this category, respectively. Notably, only one woman has won the Academy Award for best director (Kathryn Bigelow for 2010's The Hurt Locker); no black director has ever won the Oscar for best director and only two Latinx men have won in this category.

While some progress is made every year, much more work needs to be done. There were some who believed that when Moonlight won the Oscar for best picture last year, #OscarsSoWhite ceased to be an issue.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

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Moonlightdid not solve the problems of inclusion in the entertainment industry any more than the election of Barack Obama in 2008 solved racism and discrimination in the United States. One movie cannot eradicate the issues that have been endemic to a 90-year-old organization, nor should it be expected to.

#OscarsSoWhite remains relevant because studios still consider it "risky" to staff films with marginalized communities, both in front of and behind the camera. This is in direct contrast to both box-office success and critical acclaim that repeatedly prove inclusion sells. The resounding success of Black Panther shows that movies featuring a cast and crew of people of colour can not only open exceedingly well domestically, but can also do well overseas. Black Panther continues to break records and proves, again, that well-told stories with universal themes and talented filmmakers in front of and behind the camera will resonate with moviegoers, regardless of their demographics. These results can no longer be seen as anomalies. The numbers speak for themselves.

Pixar's Coco is another shining example that representation matters. A nominee in the best animated feature category, Coco tells the story of a Mexican boy who plays his guitar for ghosts. Millions of Latinx children were able to see themselves on the big screen, many for the first time. Their appreciation of this representation was reflected in the box-office receipts. For three weekends, Coco outperformed the Justice League movie that featured superheroes including Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman, characters that have been a part of the American canon for decades.

Importantly, this year's best foreign-language film nominee from Chile is A Fantastic Woman, about a trans woman dealing with the death of a lover. Marina, the lead, is played stunningly by trans actress Daniela Vega. This is no small point: Because we all bring our own frames of reference to situations, it was a wise decision to have this role played by someone who could bring something personal to the role. By way of contrast, I questioned in 2016 why Eddie Redmayne played a trans woman in The Danish Girl, instead of a talented trans actress being cast in that role.

Research from Creative Artists Agency confirms that the more inclusive a film is, the more money it makes. As America's population demographic becomes more diverse, it is imperative that moviegoers' entertainment also reflects this diversity. Studios that aren't thoughtful about inclusion, both in front of and behind the camera, are literally leaving money on the table. Moviegoers will no longer support films that don't speak to their interests or experiences.

Further, more than ever before, the public is much more attuned not only to the faces on the screen, but who is hired to tell the story. The #MeToo movement started by Tarana Burke and the #TimesUp movement have continued important conversations not only about sexual harassment, but pay equity for women. Moviegoers are becoming more vocal about who and what they will support, with both their voices and their disposable income. It is my hope that conversations about #OscarsSoWhite have buoyed these other social movements as an example of systemic change being made after a groundswell of united voices. Consumer demand must be met in the entertainment industry as it is in any other, or Hollywood studios risk a declining bottom line over time.

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The onus is on Hollywood regarding inclusion and equity. One wonders why, in 2018, we still have not seen a big-budget romantic comedy featuring two members of the LGBTQ community. Why we have the inimitable Patrick Stewart playing a disabled superhero as Professor Xavier in the X-Men series, but we have yet to see a disabled person play a superhero. One has to look back to 2011 and 2003, respectively, for the last time a Latinx or Asian-American Pacific Islander was nominated for best actor or actress. This omission clearly cannot be because of lack of talent, but rather lack of opportunity. Unless a role specifically calls for someone's race or ethnicity to be a focal point of the story, people from traditionally underrepresented communities should be actively sought to audition.

Since I created #OscarsSoWhite three years ago, we have seen some incremental progress. However, the fact that the conversation about inclusion in the entertainment industry endures indicates that there is more work to be done. This year marks the 90th Academy Awards, but until we are no longer lauding "firsts," and until we can no longer count a marginalized community's number of nominations in a particular category on our fingers, #OscarsSoWhite remains relevant.

The struggle continues.

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