As I watched the Oscar nominations on January 15, 2015, I quickly found myself feeling annoyed. Category after category, there was a lack of representation of people from marginalized communities among those up for the coveted award. I vented my frustration, as I often do, with a tweet that would travel further than I could ever imagine:
#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair. 😒
— April (@ReignOfApril) January 15, 2015
That comment became a campaign, and two years later, we are beginning to see real impact throughout the entertainment industry, both in the United States and abroad.
For instance, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) has added the BFI Diversity Standards to the eligibility criteria for the “Outstanding British Film” and “Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer” categories for their annual awards, stating that the change was made in an effort to “increase the representation of underrepresented groups in front of and behind the camera.” The German film industry is examining its diversity, or lack thereof, because of conversations emanating from #OscarsSoWhite. Here in the United States, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the organization that brings us the Oscars, extended membership invitations to 683 distinguished filmmakers, its largest and most diverse class ever.
Changes are happening at the studio level as well. JJ Abrams is taking significant steps to increase diversity in the industry, starting with his own production company. Ryan Murphy has launched the Half Foundation to dedicate at least 50 percent of the directors’ slots on his shows to filmmakers from marginalized communities. Fellowships and emerging filmmaker programs are being created to mentor those who have been traditionally underrepresented in the process.
I am always pleased to hear directly from people in the industry about the impact of #OscarsSoWhite. A veteran film producer confided in me about her elation that, after decades of work, she no longer has to twist arms or have difficult conversations with studio executives about diversity. In fact, some of those previously reluctant executives were seeking her out to learn what they could do in response to #OscarsSoWhite. A friend of mine has been accepted for a prestigious fellowship that was created in response to #OscarsSoWhite’s call for more diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry. It is incredibly gratifying to know that someone I care for so deeply was impacted by this campaign and it is my hope that we will hear his name called one day to receive an award for his work as a filmmaker.
The 2017 Oscar nominations are further proof that strides are being made in Hollywood. While I wish that we were not still marking “firsts” in nearly 90 years of the Academy, there were some notable highlights this year. Viola Davis is now the first Black woman to be a three-time Oscar nominee. Three of the Adapted Screenplay nominations (Hidden Figures, Moonlight, and Fences) reflect the Black experience. For the first time in Academy history, Black actors were nominated in every Acting category and the six total nominations for Black actors in those categories is also a record. Never before have we had three Black nominees in the same category (Best Supporting Actress). Joi McMillon is the first Black woman nominated for Best Editing (Moonlight). We also witnessed the first nomination of of a Black American for Best Cinematographer in Bradford Young (Arrival). Finally, four of the Documentary Feature nominations center around the Black experience.
While the Acting and Best Film categories are always the most popular, I’m equally excited about the nominations for filmmakers behind the camera this year. Never have we seen Black filmmakers represented in so many categories in one year. I have always maintained that a great film begins on the screenwriter’s page. Therefore, it is imperative that traditionally underrepresented filmmakers have the opportunity to tell their stories in all facets of production. It is not just who is chosen to act out the story, but whose words, vision and craftsmanship are being represented on-screen. Four films nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay that showcase the experiences of people of color (Hidden Figures, Moonlight, Lion and Fences) were also nominated for Best Film. This year’s slate of Oscars nominees highlights that, when given the opportunity, films that reflect the diversity of this country will shine.
While we’ve seen improvement among films that reflect the Black experience, other marginalized groups have lagged. I’m still waiting for a romantic comedy starring two LGBTQIA actors or actresses. While we have the phenomenal Sir Patrick Stewart playing Professor Xavier in the X-Men franchise, why have we not had a disabled actor or actress playing a superhero? In the history of the Academy, just four women have been nominated for Best Director honors and only one has won. The industry even took a step backward with respect to the Asian American Pacific Islander experience, as we see films like Dr. Who, and the upcoming Ghost in the Shell and The Wall that used White actors as their lead.
We’ve heard some say that #OscarsSoWhite has ended because of the increased diversity represented in this year’s nominations, which is a polite way of saying, “Some Black people were nominated, so do we have to talk about this anymore?” However, one year does not make up for over eighty years of under-representation of all genders, sexual orientations, races, abilities, and First Nation status. (And let us be clear that nominations do not equal awards—we’re still waiting to see who actually gets to take these statues home on February 26th!)
#OscarsSoWhite is about the inclusion of all marginalized communities, both in front of and behind the camera, throughout the entertainment industry. Films that reflect the nuance and complexity of all theater-goers have been incredibly successful this year, both critically and financially. It is incumbent upon Hollywood to ensure that more stories like these are told. That can only be achieved with enthusiastic support from studios, beginning at the screenwriting process and continuing through film distribution. I will continue to push for change using #OscarsSoWhite as a platform and encourage others to keep up the fight.
April Reign is the Managing Editor of Broadway Black and the creator of #OscarsSoWhite. Follow her on Twitter: @ReignofApril.