By Tania Chakraborti
A year ago this month, the world was in uproar as Hollywood proved itself incapable of moving with the times. Jada Pinkett Smith was one of the first to declare her boycotting of the 88th Academy Awards, after her husband Will Smith failed to be nominated for Best Actor. Idris Elba missed a nomination for his standout performance in ‘Beasts of No Nation’, as did Michael B. Jordan for his role in ‘Creed’. A host of A-listers condemned the Academy, and #oscarssowhite trended worldwide. But was it enough to enact change?
One year later and it is a matter of days before the nominations are released. Perhaps Ruth Negga will receive a nomination for her role in ‘Loving’, and Denzel Washington for his in ‘Fences’. I am doubtful however, that non-white actors will be adequately commended for their contributions to the industry. Despite an alteration to its composition, around 90% of the Academy voters are still white. This is not at all to say that the Academy is ‘inherently racist’, simply that it comprises of Hollywood bigshots: those who view the industry in monetary terms and nothing more. Guardian writer David Cox aptly commented that in their eyes, ‘onscreen whiteness is an economic necessity’: white sells, non-white is a gamble of sorts. Why is this still the case in 2017?
Since the turn of the century, only 10% of nominations have been awarded to black actors out of an American population of 12.6%. There could be a rise in black actors gaining nominations in 2017, particularly after such a strong backlash from society’s biggest names like Halle Berry and Spike Lee. But what about the rest of society?
There has been a disappointing lack of focus on the Asian demographic in Hollywood. American-Asians have only received 1% of the nominations since 2000, yet represent 6% of the American population. Although 6% sounds comparatively little, it makes up roughly 17 million individuals. That is a monumental number of people who simply do not see themselves reflected onscreen. This of course also extends to other ethnic minorities: Hispanic actors have received a mere 3% of nominations. Considering Hollywood is a global centre for entertainment, it seems we still have a serious diversity issue on our hands.
It appears the film industry continually wishes to shoot itself in the foot. Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’ recently received heavy criticism when Tilda Swinton was cast as ‘The Ancient One’, a character who is very clearly Asian in the comic. The major film franchise evidently endeavours to be true to the original comics in every other sense-so why overlook such a detail as this? It reminds me of the actions of Hollywood in 1951: black actress Lena Horne was due to play the title role in MGM’s musical ‘Showboat’, but was replaced by Ava Gardner. She, in typical MGM fashion, was dubbed by Horne’s voice anyway. It is a shame that Hollywood is choosing to re-invent itself in the 21st Century in a somewhat similar shade.
If the issue facing ethnic minority actors is not that of being overlooked, it is often that of being stereotyped. Yes, as a British Asian myself, it is lovely to see shows like ‘Citizen Khan’ on primetime BBC, or characters like Raj on ‘The Big Bang Theory’ reaching starry heights. Yet sometimes, they propagate stereotypes that are simply incorrect. What good does this do when trying to combat preconceptions on a wider scale?
Such typecasting problems have been issues raised by actors like Dev Patel, who shot to fame in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. Afterwards, he stated in an interview that ‘I wanted a role that would stretch me, but all I was getting offered were stereotypical parts like the goofy Indian sidekick’. Admittedly, years on, his new role in ‘Lion’ has now earned him a Golden Globe nomination. This is finally for a role that does not see the skilled actor stereotyped. Yet one actor, in a sea of phenomenal Asian actors, is not a satisfactory representation of the talent truly out there. We need more British Indians playing British Indians, with this philosophy extending to all multicultural groups. Only then will society truly feel reflected in the films that are supposed to define our generation.
So how can Hollywood do this? Obviously, if the Oscar nominations do not reflect this diversity, it is up to those prolific actors of our era to speak up. One of the best moments in Oscar history (other than of course, Leo taking the Oscar) was in 1973. Marlon Brando won Best Actor for his iconic role in ‘The Godfather’. He had just won the greatest accolade that any actor could hope to achieve and what did he do? He turned it down. In his place, a woman named Sacheen Littlefeather, the president of the ‘National Native American Affirmative Image Committee’, made a speech on his behalf. She made clear that Brando was appalled with the stereotyping of Native Americans on film. This was a significant moment, which arguably triggered the decline of cultural appropriation of this community on screen. We need more powerful moments like this in today’s society. Will the 2017 Oscar nominations show that the Academy has learnt its lesson? I sincerely hope so.
Photograph by mafleen via Flickr and Creative Commons