November 4, 2016

Diversity in Entertainment: Where Can We Go From Here?

Aviva Kamens ‘17

Movie enthusiasts around the country watched earnestly on January 14, 2016 as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominations for the 88th annual Academy Awards. Some of the nominees were far from surprising, but what was surprising was who was not nominated for the second year in a row: actors, directors and screenwriters of color.
Movies like Straight Outta Compton, Creed and The Hateful Eight all had important people of color involved in their production, yet they were not nominated. Even more enraging, the white screenwriters for Straight Outta Compton were nominated for Best Original Screenplay, though none of the black actors were nominated, nor was the black director.
Theater enthusiasts watched in earnest as the nominees for the Tony Awards were announced on May 3, 2016. One of the most unique things about that day was that 17 people of color were nominated for awards as actors, designer, and members of the creative team.  
The nominations and resulting awards ceremonies of the Oscars and Tonys couldn’t have gone more differently. While the Oscars chose to only focus on the achievements of whites for the second year in a row, the Tonys recognized the achievements of all people. But while the Oscars may have reached a record low point, it’s possible that the Tonys have also reached a peak. After all, the 2015-2016 Broadway season featured a significant number of shows with casts that were almost entirely made up of people of color, including Hamilton, On Your Feet!, Eclipsed and Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. It will be incredibly difficult for the current Broadway season to measure up to that standard. This leaves the Tonys and the Oscars with opposite problems: the Oscars need to increase its diversity and the Tonys need to maintain its diversity.
The Academy likely needs to reevaluate how they determine nominees. It has over 6,000 voters, but each only votes on the categories in his or her own branch. Actors only vote in the Best Actor categories, directors only vote for Best Direction and so on. The problem is not how the voting occurs, but the voters. Seventy six percent of the voters are male, 94 percent are white and the average age is 63 years old. Many of them are years removed from being active working members of the film industry.
The one aspect of the situation that gives us hope for the future is the response of the President of the Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. She released a statement, initially on Twitter, that acknowledged both the accomplishments of this year’s nominees and the need for the Oscars to diversify their voting and membership base.
“[W]e have implemented changes to diversify our membership in the last four years,” Isaacs said. “But the change is not coming as fast as we would like. We need to do more, and better and more quickly.”
Isaacs also added that she would “conduct a review of [their] membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond.”
The challenge for the American Theater Wing, the organization that hands out the Tonys, may be even more difficult. Broadway has always been more advanced than much of the rest of the entertainment industry on controversial issues – they were the first to embrace the LGBT community with open arms following the AIDS scare in the 1980s – so it makes sense that they would be one step ahead of the movies on the diversity scale.
To continue this trend, they need to do something that the industry has been doing all along: push boundaries. The theater world has become skilled at presenting shows that call for large casts of people of color. However, theater needs to make roles that weren’t written with any specific race in mind and allow people of color to shine in those as well.  
If film and theater do change for the better, we can hopefully one day live in a world where people of color star in movies and plays and are awarded for their work, without it being a breaking news story.

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