Representation in 2023: #OscarsSoWhite was a start, but not the remedy. 

By Stephanie Ormand

In March 2023, I sat down (virtually) with Jamaican Rastafarian journalist and filmmaker Barbara Blake-Hannah to discuss her career, and the changes she saw throughout her time in the industry (read the full interview here). There have been some significant shifts since the 1970s, yet one thing that stood out was Hannah’s call for diversity in film to mean everyone, aiming to represent all those whose tales remain untold such as of the Maroons and Chinese Jamaicans. Essentially, cases where there are major intersections between race, ethnicity, and culture. Still, when it comes to recent popular movements calling for greater representation in film, there is one hashtag the film industry can’t quite shake off: #OscarsSoWhite.

On January 15th, 2015, writer and media strategist April Reign posted ‘#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.’ on X (formerly known as Twitter). A quick search reveals Reign was not alone in her opinion that numerous actors and off-screen professionals of colour had been snubbed during the 87th Academy Awards. The most famous instance being the civil rights biopic Selma (2014) directed by Ava DuVernay, the first African American woman to be nominated for Best Picture. By 2016, #OscarsSoWhite became an impassioned online movement to confront the film industry’s bias against BIPOC individuals’ achievements and contributions. Today, the hashtag is mentioned either in passing, or in reference to the supposed changes, and lack thereof, made by Hollywood since. But eight years on, and the meaning of representation constantly expanding, what does it really look like on and off screen?  

Emphasis on hitting targets for “good” representation has amped up. For the 2024 Oscars, the Academy now requires films that wish to be eligible for Best Picture to ensure “at least 30%” of the cast and crew respectively are from “underrepresented groups.” Encouraging diverse representation for the opportunity to receive career-changing accolades is far from subtle motivation. Some filmmakers have quickly adapted to the industry’s apparent new leaf and been handsomely rewarded. For instance, A24’s Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – which combined the relationships in a Chinese-American family with the absurdity of the multiverse – swept the Academy Awards. Overall, it received seven Oscars with Michelle Yeoh being the first Asian woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress.

Phil Lord, producer-writer for Across the Spider-Verse, came under fire for overworking animators with 100 allegedly quitting mid-production

On the surface, major studios such as Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures also seem to have taken the task of increasing representation seriously with some of this year’s most popular movies featuring extensive ethnic and cultural inclusivity on-screen. Barbie (2023) directed by Greta Gerwig and its perpetual hot-pink marketing campaign helped audiences acquaint themselves with a seemingly inclusive “Barbieland” where anyone could see themselves in the dolls’ world. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023) starring Shameik Moore (Miles Morales) featured a talented range of voice actors for the multiverse sequel, including social media favourites Oscar Issac (Miguel O’Hara) and Daniel Kaluuya (Spider-Punk). The hiring of a massive team of animators from around the globe is evident in the sheer volume of individual character designs of each Spiderman and entertaining nods to each personality.

However, there are limits to celebrating these films. Considering the current state of the American film industry, we must ask ourselves whether tokenism is the method Hollywood has greenlit when it comes to representation in films today, and if this is only done for reputational convenience.

It’s unsurprising that the responsibility to accommodate diversity on both sides of a production generally fall on individuals from underrepresented communities themselves

Barbie has been accused by critics of perpetuating tokenism, whilst Phil Lord, producer-writer for Across the Spider-Verse, came under fire for overworking animators with 100 allegedly quitting mid-production. Moreover, the commencement of the writers’ strike in May followed by the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) strikes in late July exposed the profits of post-pandemic film production clearly missing the pockets of most. Particularly in the cases of working-class people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, and disabled people who are now facing industrial pressure from Hollywood to “accept” their circumstances. So, how much longer will the push for greater overall representation last if studios do not own up to the fact that they can’t make a quick buck at the expense of minorities?

The implementation of representation beyond the facets of race, culture, and ethnicity are being steadily acknowledged across the industry, but 2023 would not be the year where everything slowed to an LA traffic halt. Quotas only go so far; a payslip goes further. Getting to this point has been a slow wheel to turn considering the even larger discrepancies in career opportunities for marginalised individuals off-screen, with exclusivity and elitism still largely unchallenged. It’s unsurprising that the responsibility to accommodate diversity on both sides of a production generally fall on individuals from underrepresented communities themselves.

With diverse representation, we see a greater array of creative expression enriching films. During an interview with Variety, Lily Gladstone – a Native-American actress starring in the upcoming Western drama Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) – stated that, thanks to input from members of the Osage Nation, the film became a “different movie” to what director Martin Scorsese had originally planned. From the UK, there have also been highlights which followed suit. Drawing on lived experiences and British pop culture, Rye Lane (2023), the directorial debut of Black-British filmmaker Raine Allen-Miller with screenplay by Nathan Byron and Tom Melia saw the Peckham based rom-com premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and receive resounding critical acclaim. Plus, a fast-tracked contract to be streamed on Hulu shortly afterwards.

It is becoming increasingly likely that independent filmmakers and household corporations will battle for bearing torches to define the standards for representation in film. These battles seem almost an echo of their predecessors’ rivalry as civil rights campaigns and social movements manifested during the late 20th century. #OscarsSoWhite was the 21st century’s kindling block, but we need more foundations to ensure intersectionality continues to be encouraged and inform decisions in films. After all, we still have a few weeks of the year left and more movies to enjoy before next year’s round of Academy Awards. And Freshers, remember to cancel that free trial.

To read the full interview with Barbara Blake-Hannah, click here.

Image: screenshot of X post by @ReignOfApril

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