These Numbers Prove Hollywood's Diversity Problem Goes Much Deeper Than The Oscars
It wasn't long after the 2016 Academy Awards nominations were announced that the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite started trending on Twitter. For the second year in a row, all 20 of the actors nominated for an Oscar are white. But is it really the Academy that's to blame? Or is that just a symptom of the fact that there's such a lack of diversity in Hollywood that there just weren't any people of color to nominate? Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a woman of color herself, released a statement saying that she was "heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion," according to ABC News. She promised to review Academy membership recruitment practices in the near future, which should help, since the current Academy membership is overwhelmingly old, white, and male.
Jada Pinkett Smith called for an Oscar boycott on Facebook recently, and Spike Lee spoke out on Instagram, thanking the Academy for his recent honorary Oscar before launching into a long, title-cased rant about how he "Cannot Support" the lack of "Flava." Cringe-inducing though the title casing was, he has a point. But Whoopi Goldberg disagreed that a boycott was necessary, arguing that it would be a "slap in the face" to this year's host, Chris Rock. "Why is this a conversation that we only have once a year?" she asked on The View on Tuesday. "[T]he rest of the year, nobody says anything. These movies have been coming out, we've been going to see them, I'm sure people notice when there's a lack of diversity in the movie." According to Us Weekly, to Goldberg, the issue is that "people think we don't want to see movies with black people in them."
So how white is Hollywood? Let's run the numbers.
The Number of Black Actors Who Have Won An Oscar: 15
Fifteen people. In the Academy Awards' 88-year history, only 15 of the winning actors have been black. While we've all heard the appalling story of that first black winner, Hattie McDaniel, having to get special permission to even attend the otherwise-segregated Oscar ceremony in order to accept her award for Best Supporting Actress in 1939, it's equally appalling to see just how little progress has been made in the last 77 years.
Number Of Top 20 Movies Of 2015 Starring A Person Of Color: 6-ish
Straight Outta Compton, of course, starred black actors. Then we had John Boyega as the first (as far as we know) black Stormtrooper in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Dwayne Johnson starred in San Andreas, and Vin Diesel (who, according to the British paper Express, is "of ambiguous ethnicity" but identifies as a person of color) starred in Furious 7. So that's four definite examples.
It gets trickier when deciding whether or not to count animated features; Rihanna portrayed Gratutity Tucci in Home, and her character was a person of color as well. But then we have Selena Gomez in Hotel Transylvania 2, who played a very white vampire, whose father is Adam Sandler.
There were also minor roles for people of color, such as Mindy Kaling's character from Inside Out, Disgust (who was a green emotion made of light that lived inside a white girl), and a brief cameo in Ant-Man from one of the two non-white Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Anthony Mackie's Falcon. One would hardly call either of them the stars, however.
Number Of People Of Color In The Star Wars & Marvel Franchises, Combined: 18
And as long as we're on the topic, let's discuss Star Wars and Marvel, two franchises that make, just, all the money for Disney. How many people of color are in those movies?
Star Wars: Episode VI had zero, unless you count James Earl Jones. Jones provided the voice of Darth Vader, but Vader's actually white. Then Billy Dee Williams showed up in Episode V as Lando Calrissian. Episode I introduced us to Captain Panaka, who nobody remembers, and Mace Windu (because Samuel L. Jackson is contractually obligated to be in one out of every 10 movies made, ever), and Ahmed Best set race relations back 200 years with his portrayal of Jar Jar Binks. In Episode II, Temuera Morrison played Jango Fett, Daniel Logan played Boba Fett, and Jimmy Smits played Senator Bail Organa. In Episode III, Keisha Castle-Hughes played Queen Apailana of Naboo. Then we have Episode VII, with Boyega as Finn, Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, and Lupita Nyong'o as a weird little alien.
Marvel has Sam Jackson (I told you!) as Nick Fury, Don Cheadle as Iron Man's Captain James Rhodes, aka War Machine, aka Iron Patriot (formerly played by Terrance Howard), and the aforementioned Anthony Mackie as Falcon. Guardians of the Galaxy featured three superheroes of color: Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and Vin Diesel, although their characters were green, gray, and a tree, respectively. Thor features Idris Elba as Heimdall.
So that's 11 for Star Wars (throughout seven films), and a pitiful seven for Marvel, out of twelve movies. Stay tuned for Black Panther in 2018 — that'll make eight!
Number Of Whitewashed Film Roles In 2015: 3.5
Now I'm going to bring up something most people are still trying to forget: Emma Stone's role as Allison Ng in Aloha. Cameron Crowe defended his choice to have the very white Stone play Ng (a character who was described as one quarter Chinese and one quarter Hawaiian) by explaining (whitesplaining?) that Ng was inspired by a real Asian redhead that Crowe once met. OK, sure.
The Martian gave us a whitewashing and a switcheroo: white actress Mackenzie Davis played Mindy Park, a character who was written as Korean, and Chiwetel Ejiofor (whose parents are Nigerian) plays Vincent Kapoor (originally an Indian man called Venkat Kapoor in the book, according to GQ).
Pan gave us Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, a Native American, and speaking of Native Americans, don't even get me started on the crap Adam Sandler pulled with The Ridiculous Six. Just don't.
So, yes, the Oscars are #SoWhite. And whether that's wholly or only in part because the Academy didn't have much to choose from, it's a big problem. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock made headlines last September with their radical idea to fix Hollywood's sexism problem: women should try out for men's roles. They claim it worked for them; the character Bullock played in Clooney's Our Brand is Crisis was originally written as a man. Maybe that's a bad example, though, since it bombed. But you get the point.
So If Bullock can play a man's role and Chiwetel Ejiofor can play an Indian, why not start blackwashing and Asianwashing more roles? Louis C.K. famously cast a black woman as his ex-wife and the mother of his white children on Louie, refusing to explain himself or apologize. Fans eventually got over it, because she was the best actress for the role. And fans new to the Marvel universe may be surprised to learn that prior to 2001, Nick Fury was white. Nowadays, casting anyone other than Jackson for the role is unimaginable.
Unless it's relevant to the role (like someone who goes around telling everyone how proud she is to be part-Hawaiian), why write roles with race in mind at all? Aziz Ansari explores the idea in the third episode of his fantastic Netflix series, Master of None. In "Indians on TV," Dev, an Indian-American actor, is often forced to take roles as a cab driver or a convenience store clerk, and is frustrated with casting directors asking him to do an accent. He tries out for a role on Three Buddies, a Friends-type show, along with his Indian friend Ravi. After the audition, he intercepts an email between two executives where they express their desire for both actors, but "there can't be two."
But why not? Seriously, someone tell me why not. Because I'm a white person who watched Master of None in its entirety and adored it. I loved the Indian characters (all six of them), as well as the black and Chinese characters. I'm a straight woman, but I still related to Dev's best friends, a man and a lesbian. A character does not have to look exactly like me in order for me to care about them. And I'd hope that most film and TV fans would agree. And as for those who don't, does Hollywood really want to pander to them, anyway? I sure hope not.
Images: Mike Coppola, Mark Davis/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images; Rossano aka Bud Care/Flickr; Universal Pictures; Marvel Studios; Columbia Pictures; Giphy (3)