It’s 2015, and this Black History month it seems appropriate to celebrate how far social justice has come as a movement in terms of race, sexuality and gender. In the past few decades campaigns have been launched, laws have been passed and attitudes have slowly changed. But there’s still a long way to go. One industry that still seems to have a massive problem with representation is the film industry, and Hollywood in particular.
This is perhaps most obvious when it comes to awards season, and especially the Oscars. In the awards’ 87 year history, only 31 statues have been handed to an African American; this is incredibly poor, considering over 2,700 awards have been presented in total during this period. Other non-white actors and film professionals are also drastically under-represented here, and it’s a problem that doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.
When the names of the nominees for this year’s Academy Awards were released many took to twitter to voice their concern at the lack of diversity among candidates. The hashtag #Oscarssowhite became a worldwide trend that was generating over 95,000 tweets an hour when it started.
The awards were dubbed the ‘whitest in 19 years,’ and also received their lowest TV ratings since 2009, partially due to a viewing boycott organised on social media. Many perceived that Selma, one of the biggest hits of 2014 and a film about the civil rights struggle and directed by a black woman, had been snubbed in the acting and directing categories.
Things had looked promising at the 2014 awards, when 12 Years a Slave picked up best director and best supporting actress. It was a small victory that many thought could be a breakthrough and lead to wider change in the straight-white-male dominated Hollywood. However, in terms of Academy Awards, this change is bound to be slow due to the makeup of voters.
According to an investigation conducted by the LA Times, only 6% of voters are from non-white backgrounds, 77% of all voters were male and around 55% were over 60. With this composition, it’s not surprising that the films awarded Oscars often don’t match the demographic make-up of the US.
Another place where Hollywood’s race issue is prevalent is in the casting department. Even when scripts come through with a non-white character, casting directors have a tendency to ignore ethnicity. Granted, a character’s ethnicity does not have to match the script and the best actors should be given roles, but it’s highly suspicious that this seems to work consistently in favour of white actors.
The idea of a black James Bond caused a stir on the internet when it was suggested that Idris Elba was to be given the part after Daniel Craig. Yet no-one seems to be kicking up much of a fuss about Rooney Mara playing Tiger Lily (a Native American) in the upcoming family movie Pan or how the entire cast of Exodus: Gods and Kings didn’t appear to contain a single Egyptian person. ‘White-washing’ is systematic in Hollywood, even in films that are supposed to have an uplifting message about equality such as Stonewall. The 2015 film about the riots that sparked the gay rights movement came under fire from LGBT activists; it showed the fight being led by gay white men, when black transgender women were really the first to fight back.
You may be thinking: why does it matter? Films are about escapism; they don’t reflect real life and are purely for entertainment. But what we watch on the screen has an enormous effect on our perceptions of ourselves and society as a whole. If non-white children grow up watching films where none of the characters look like them, and those that do are stereotyped or minor roles, where are their role models? Who do young non-white actors and film-makers have to aspire to be like? In the interests of cohesion and, above all else, fairness, Hollywood has to become more open to talent from all demographics.