In the year after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy humiliated and upended the biggest awards show in Hollywood, The Academy seems to have learned a lesson. This year, three movies centering on three very different Black stories earned Best Picture nominations: Moonlight, a visually stunning coming of age story about a young gay Black man; Hidden Figures, an emotionally uplifting tale that finally gives the three Black women who made some of NASA's biggest missions possible their due; and Fences, a big-screen adaptation of the classic August Wilson play about a mid-century Black family in Pittsburgh. In another era, such diversity of stories within this one community would have been unthinkable: There has never been more than one Best Picture nomination featuring a Black story in a single year.
But that was then. Not only are three of the nine Best Picture nominations about African-Americans, but six of the 20 acting nominations went to Black actors; Barry Jenkins earned a Best Director nomination for Moonlight, and five of the six Best Documentary nominees were created by Black filmmakers.
There's no doubt the members of The Academy are patting themselves on the back. Even The New York Times quipped that a new hashtag could be #OscarsSoBlack. But as far as diversity goes, any back-patting is premature, because although Hollywood made sure more Black voices were heard this year, it still has a major diversity problem: the lack of Asians and Latinx.
Indeed, there are zero Latinx actors, directors, or films nominated this year, and only one that centers around an Asian person. That one happens to be Lion, which also earned lead Dev Patel a Best Actor nomination. This is the first time an Asian actor has been nominated since Slumdog Millionaire in 2009.
This is not just a problem for this year's Oscars, but for the past five. Out of 125 nominations across the five main categories — acting, supporting acting, and directing — only three people were Latinx, and two Asian, including Patel's nomination this year. And of those few nominations? Not one woman. That's right: In five years, no Latina or Asian women have been nominated for an Academy Award.
"After last year’s debacle with the film industry, Hollywood focused on the African-American community — so Latinos are the forgotten ones," says Alex Nogales, President and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which creates opportunities for Latinx in the entertainment industry. "The truth is that there's still a lot of guilt amongst white people as a consequence of slavery, and rightfully so. But because whites don’t have as much of a history with the Latinx community, there's a lot of ignorance about who the Latino community is in this nation — and a lack of interest."
According to movie producer Janet Yang, "there have been some bright spots, but also many dark spots" when it comes to the Asian-American community. "When we made The Joy Luck Club over 20 years ago, all of the headlines were 'Wow, what a great opening weekend, and for a story with an Asian cast!' And then for years, we saw nothing," she says. "It's a cycle; there will be a few movies here and there — this year we finally saw a male lead, Hayden Szeto, get the girl in Edge of Seventeen — but next year, there might be nothing again."
Hollywood has always had a tenuous relationship with Asian and Latinx actors and directors, particularly because white actors are often cast in Asian and Latinx roles. Remember Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's in 1961, or Natalie Wood as Puerto Rican Maria in West Side Story that same year? More than 30 years later, in the 1990s, the situation seemed to be getting better: Latinx actresses like Rosie Perez and Salma Hayek were becoming household names, and in 1997 Jennifer Lopez burst onto the scene as Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla in Selena. By the early aughts, Asian-Americans like Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Lucy Liu, and Margaret Cho were on the rise, as well, leading major films and proving that Asian-American stories can perform just as well as other movies at the box office.
But somehow, Hollywood has become less diverse and more whitewashed over the past decade. This year alone, Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton were cast as Asian characters in Doctor Strange and Ghost In the Shell; Mark Ruffalo played Boston Globe reporter Michael Rezendes in 2015's Spotlight, and somehow, some way, Emma Stone ended up as an Asian character in 2015's Aloha.
"We're often casted as the best friend — because duh, we can't possibly be the romantic lead."
As disappointing as this is for viewers, Nogales points out that it’s actually the film industry that’s losing out by not authentically depicting minority stories more frequently.
"We are the largest minority population in the nation: 18% of people of color are Latinos," he says. "We consume at a higher rate than anyone else, up to 1.5 trillion dollars a year. We see more films than any other group, we use more social media than anybody else. And yet, we’re absent from the big screen."
While in comparison Asian-Americans are the third highest minority group going to the movies, Yang adds, "The industry will never get a chance to see just how well Asian-led films can do at the box office if they don't consistently create them."
Given the larger issues our country is currently dealing with, it's easy to dismiss a lack of diversity in Hollywood as insignificant. But it's precisely for that reason that ensuring there is diversity in film is more important now than ever. Race relations in this country are tense, and our new president often spreads messages of fear and prejudice about people who are "other." So what better way to help people see that Hey, minorities are just like everyone else than through the entertainment they constantly consume?
"For us, it’s not just simply about getting another actor another job or a director another job — it's about how we are perceived by the general public," says Nogales. "Latinos will be treated how they are perceived, and at this point in time? We’re not treated very well in this country."
Diversity in Hollywood is much bigger than just the faces featured on camera, of course. When it comes to Oscar votes, of The Academy's more than 7,000 members, women make up only 27% of voters, and people of color make up only 11%. And beyond awards shows, in order to get more diverse stories greenlit and more diverse faces casted, there needs to be more diversity among the people calling the shots. But the entertainment industry is also slacking when it comes to getting people of color — particularly women of color — in positions of power. In fact, on The Hollywood Reporter’s 2016 Women in Entertainment Power 100, just 16 women were Black, and only seven were non-Black women of color. How will we ever see more inclusivity in film when there aren't enough women with the access to represent and speak up for their communities?
Yang, who's known for films like The People vs. Larry Flint, The Joy Luck Club, and Shanghai Calling, says a large part of the issue is an outdated mentality among the industry's power players about what will perform and make money.
"I was just talking to one of my assistants who's a student at UCLA taking a class on film authorship, and she said ‘Yeah, we’re watching a whole bunch of films by white guys,'" Yang says. "And those films by white guys are very well-made movies — because white men have dominated this industry for so long, so they're the ones receiving more money for their projects, which means their films appear more skillfully made — and get 'Blockbuster' or other major statuses."
"Movies with a bigger budget and more resources are more likely to succeed, so the subconscious message becomes ‘In order for a film to be successful, it has to be from a white man’s point of view.’ But there are many of us here in the trenches with much smaller budgets, determined to prove that you can make commercial films that are not told from the white man’s point of view, and they will — and do — succeed.”
The movie world only needs to look nearby for an example on how to do better: TV. Though far from perfect (audiences were outraged when — spoiler alert — The Walking Dead’s only Asian character, played by Stephen Yeung, was killed off last year), episodic shows in the past decade have done a much better job of being inclusive, part of the reason the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards, which include TV nominations, are much more diverse than the Oscars.
Cop shows like CSI and Law & Order have long been more reflective of real communities, even in newer shows like NBC's Shades of Blue. Jane the Virgin, which centers on a Latinx family in Miami, was CW's sleeper hit in 2015 because it resonated with viewers of all cultures, and one of the most-watched shows this past year was the diversely casted The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Turn on ABC, and you'll see everything from Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat to Shonda Rhimes' famously comprehensive shows, and Netflix shows like One Day at a Time and Orange Is the New Black prove that multicultural programming can perform with any audience.
"In the film industry, there’s still a lot of unconscious bias in casting roles," Yang says. "For a long time, because of Connie Chung, people thought, ‘Oh, okay, Asians can play newscasters,’ and then people were seeing a lot of Asian doctors and nurses, so then it was ‘Oh, okay, they can do that.’ But we can be anything. We're often casted as the best friend — because duh, we can't possibly be the romantic lead. This kind of thinking is somehow embedded in people’s minds, so it's time for executives and casting directors to really shake loose all of their preconceptions of who Asians or other minority groups are. Why can't we play the star in a romantic comedy?"
Black, Asian, and Latinx stories aren't the only underrepresented groups, either — there's also a dismal number of Native American and Pacific Islander roles on the big screen. According to USC Annenberg’s 2016 report on inequality in film, in 2015, less than 1% were American Indian/Alaskan Native, and less than 1% were Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. And inclusivity in Hollywood goes beyond race: USC Annenberg also found that in 2015, only 2.4% of characters in the top 100 movies who spoke or had actual names had disabilities. As of 2010, 18.7% of Americans had disabilities. These numbers are, in a word, unacceptable.
So bravo, Hollywood, for finally (finally!) paying attention and making 2016 a year full of movies that were a little more diverse — and seeing those films receive the recognition they deserve. But diversity goes beyond Black or brown, and there are still so many stories that need to be told to represent the world we live in.
That world is beautifully colorful and mixed up — and the stories that will live on long after we've left it need to reflect that.
Hollywood is governed by outdated myths. Myth 1: Non-white actors don’t generate box office returns. But researchers at the University of North Carolina and McGill University found that films featuring Black actors earned roughly 60% more than films with no Black actors. Diverse films perform better. Still, actors and actresses of color remain persistently underrepresented in all strata of entertainment, from studio and network chiefs (which are roughly 94% white), to leads in film and on TV (where they remain outnumbered by roughly 2 to 1).
Beyond The Hashtag is R29’s take on the persistence of racism in Hollywood, from financing and directing to casting and moviegoing. Let's look at the signs of hope for a change.