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The Problem with Diversity in Hollywood

Written by on January 19, 2015


Selma was snubbed in the acting and directing categories, and the fact that one film was left bearing the burdens of diversity in this year’s awards race — the whitest in nearly 20 years — is a big problem.

In a BuzzFeed Entertainment conversation with Colman Domingo, David Oyelowo, André Holland, and Stephan James in Selma discusses the differences in a roundtable interview.

Alison Willmore: So Selma was snubbed at the Oscar nominations this morning. Mostly. It got a best picture nod, which isn’t nothing, and one for best song for Common and John Legend’s “Glory.” But in categories like Best Actor (for David Oyelowo) and Best Director (Ava DuVernay), it was left out in the cold, meaning that the performing categories, in particular, are entirely white this year. It sucks, but are you surprised, Kelley?

Kelley L. Carter: Sadly, not at all. I feel like this is such an evergreen conversation to have in Hollywood — at least for the last few years. The pattern to me has been that Hollywood green-lights a compelling film that features diverse characters — in this case, we’re talking about African-Americans — and then the acting, the writing, the directing is amazing, but here’s the rub: There’s so much pressure on that one film to carry it on home. Selma unfortunately was the film that fit the bill this year. As a film critic, what did you think it was missing?

AW: A more formulaic, feel-good structure? I feel like Selma might have been too nuanced, too focused on process and the very human imperfections of even great men like Martin Luther King Jr. It didn’t give in to easy triumphalism — and then, racism was solved, and we never spoke of it again. It showcased the work that was required to bring about change, and spoke directly to present-day race relations, having an immediacy that this year’s other period dramas, like Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, lacked. And that’s what’s really frustrating to me — DuVernay made something that fit into the basic mold of the awardsy movie, but it managed to be much better and more complex. And she still didn’t get a nomination!

KLC: I love that perspective, and I agree. I believe that once DuVernay tweaked the screenplay to really focus on the freedom fighters and the everyday people who took to the streets for social change, she and the studio knew they had something amazing on their hands. All of the other unfortunate news of 2014 (the Mike Brown and Eric Garner deaths) only fueled this film, giving it a timely feel, even though we’re dealing with subject matter from 50 years ago. The studio shot this film in a ridiculously short time period because they KNEW that it deserved a fighting chance to not just be seen this holiday season, but to go head-to-head with some of the best films of the year. Sadly, I think that played a role in this film not getting more recognition — and I don’t just mean at the Oscars.

AW: Here’s the thing — it’s upsetting to me that Selma has been left out of a lot of major awards along the way to this point, which may or may not be due to how Paramount handled the film’s campaign. But the outrage and resignation so many people are expressing now about the lack of people of color (and women, for that matter) in so many of the Academy Award categories feels like a conversation we should have been having months ago. Like, haven’t we all been watching the same Oscar race until now? It hasn’t exactly been diverse! It’s terrible that it only takes the snubbing of one movie to whitewash this year’s acting race.

KLC: Yes! And as I said earlier, this is a really evergreen conversation. Here’s a conversation I hear from black folks often: “Why are the only films that get green-lit — that are considered compelling and rich and layered — the ones that deal with the ugliest bit of our history?” That’s a valid conversation to have. Whenever films that center around black, Native American, Latino, or Asian characters, it always is tied to the most challenging elements of history — or it almost always centers around identity. Now, I don’t think that black people should have any shame about descending from slaves or duck our heads because of what our lives may have looked like post-Reconstruction, and I understand that those stories are amazing.

To me, 12 Years a Slave was one of the best films I’ve ever seen, yet I know of a lot of black people who refused to see it because they’re (we’re) sick of seeing the same themes played out on a Hollywood screen year after year while calling it THE black experiences. Like, the only ones: slavery. Reconstruction. Civil rights. That’s all you get (that’s compelling), black people! I feel the same way when it comes to other ethnic groups as well. What I would love to see are more colorblind casting choices, where blacks, Asians, and Latinos get to play rich, complex characters even though they’re not white. Other than Denzel Washington in Training Day and Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, I struggle to think (without researching it) of the last time someone black was nominated for a role that had nothing to do with slavery, the civil rights movement, etc. Also: even with Washington and Berry’s roles and wins, these films still centered on urban strife, which ultimately equals “black stories.” I live for the day when this isn’t always the case.

AW: Washington also got a nod for Flight, which was such a rarity in terms of not being a story centered on his character’s race that it looks practically subversive in this context — it’s too bad the movie was so unmemorable. But he’s also two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington, to whom the Academy has already given its stamp of approval, and who won his first award for Glory, which is exactly the kind of drama you described, Kelley. When it comes to stories about people of color, the Oscars have always saved their favor for a very specific type of film. And that’s exasperating when there were other movies worthy of attention — and still not many of them! — that were left out of awards talk this year. I know I liked Get On Up much more than you did, but can we agree that Chadwick Boseman was practically incandescent when playing James Brown on stage? And what about Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s movie duo, Beyond the Lights and Belle?

KLC: EXACTLY! You’re so on the money with what you said about Denzel. It’s why last year I was really disappointed to see that the Academy ignored Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station. That was a real chance to show that Hollywood is harvesting — and highlighting — the next crop of actors. And even though it was a story based on real life, it was a chance to mix things up a bit, and give us something different. But it feels like Hollywood consistently wants to stick with the one or two black actors who they think have a following and that’s it. And like you said, this year would have been a great time to introduce a larger audience to Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who really should be primed to be the next big thing. I love Chadwick Boseman and think he’s an amazing actor, and I wanted something different from Get On Up, but he is undeniably a fantastic actor who should be on the biggest award stages at some point. We just need for Hollywood to open the gates a bit more to casting actors of color in roles that aren’t just decidedly black.

AW: And in the meantime, the accepted narrow definition of what an awardworthy movie about people of color is supposed to look like means that Selma was left carrying a huge burden of expectations through this season. It was being declared this year’s 12 Years a Slave before anyone ever saw it, and not because people thought the movies would have that much in common in terms of style or structure. It’s insane that there would be only room for one black movie per year in the mainstream awards conversation, and that the triumph of 2013’s one black movie might hurt the chances of 2014’s. But that’s the narrative the Oscars have been suggesting, and it’s not just infuriating — it’s making the awards seem increasingly irrelevant.

KLC: And that to me is the big issue here: There’s this unwillingness to open the door just an inch wider to let someone else inside. I think it’s fair to say we both enjoyed the films and performances that are up for Oscars this year — for the most part. The problem isn’t really that the Academy voters got it wrong, per se. It’s just that they didn’t have much to work with — this is the whitest Oscar race since 1998. Hollywood needs to unlatch the gate and let more women and more people of color tell more stories in front of and behind the camera. And if Hollywood studios continue to still turn a blind eye, it’s time to consider the idea that the industry may just not apply much value to diverse stories at all.