February 6, 2016 – Issues of Diversity in Hollywood?

Early on the morning of January 14, 2016,  the list of this year’s Oscar nominees were announced with “The Revenant” receiving 12 nominations, George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” receiving ten nominations and “The Martian” receiving 7 nominations.

As the list of those who would be attending at the Dolby Theatre with the possibility of receiving an award came to a close, the reality that black actors were completely shut out of the main categories became a noticeable reality especially in a year when many people felt that Idris Elba should have been nominated for “Beast of No Nation” (he subsequently won the SAG award) and Will Smith was passed over for his role in “Concussion”.  The highly popular film “Straight Outta Compton” also failed to attract attention.  Highlighting a further absence of representation by minority groups, the actor, Benicio Del Toro failed to get any recognition for his  critically acclaimed performance in “Sicario.”

In response to the lack of diversity representation, a number of people including Spike Lee and Jada Smith announced that they would boycott the Oscars and Spike Lee announced that he could not support “the lily white” Oscars this year.  

Responding to an abundance of negative press, Academy President, Cheryl Boone Isaacs indicated that she was “heartbroken and frustrated” by the lack of diversity amongst this year’s nominees and advised that the Academy would aim to double the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.  It is interesting to note that a study by the LA Times in 2012 determined that 94% of Oscar voters were white.

It is somewhat amusing to me (or perhaps a little disturbing) that the focus on the issue is the configuration of the voting members of the Academy when the cause of the problem is much deeper.  Actor, Danny DeVito, hit the nail on the head when he commented in response to proposed changes to Academy voting membership “…this is dealing with the symptom, not starting at the root cause, how we get to results like this, which has to do with inclusion and access and the ability for people of color, women, minorities to get entry-level positions where you can become someone who can green-light a movie.”

The number of black actors in a leading role who have won an Oscar since 1958 are limited to Sidney Poitier in 1963, Denzel Washington in 2001, Jamie Fox in 2004 and Forrest Whitaker in 2006.  In the actress category, the numbers are even more disturbing where Halle Berry is the only actress to have won an award in the leading role category since in over 60 years.

But as Danny DeVito pointed out,  a major part of the ongoing problem is that we live in a society where despite living in a country where according to a recent census, close to 40% of the population is made up of ethnic groups other than “Non-Hispanic Whites” including close to 40 million people who are “Non-Hispanic Blacks”, the lack of meaningful representation in a proportionate basis amongst almost every sector of the film and television community is truly disturbing.  The 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report conducted by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA concluded as follows:

1. Ethnic minorities, who make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, received only 17 percent of the lead roles in theatrical films.

2. Among the ranks of top Hollywood film executives, the report states, “the composition of CEOs and/or chairs running the 18 studios examined was 94 percent white and 100 percent male.”

3. Amongst leading actors in film, 83% were white.

4. Amongst film directors, 82% were white.

5. Amongst feature film writers 88% were white.

6. Amongst show creators, 94% were white as it pertained to broadcast TV and 89% in cable TV.

But the issue in Hollywood is not just one of ethnic diversity, the problem is also one of gender diversity.  Using the same categories above as it pertains to women, the following conclusions were also reached despite the fact that women represent the majority of people in America who go to the cinema:

1. Amongst leading actors in film, 75% were male.

2. Amongst film directors, 94% were male.

3. Amongst feature film writers 87% were male.

4. Amongst show creators, 71% were male as it pertained to broadcast TV and 77% in cable TV.

What I also find amusing to me (or again perhaps a little disturbing) is how much attention issues of diversity and gender receive as it pertains to problems in Hollywood as opposed to other sections of the working population in the United States.  Perhaps it is because news about Hollywood celebrities sells more “copy” but the truth of the matter is that the problems in this country are far deeper.  A report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in 2014 concluded that despite women representing roughly 50% of the workforce, female full time workers made only 79 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts creating a gender wage gap of 21%.  Similar issues arise as it pertains to race discrimination with the IWPR’s report concluding that “outright discrimination in pay, hiring, or promotions continues to be a significant feature of working life.”

A report released by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2014 reported that the percentage of claims alleging retaliation in the workforce reached record high levels in that year with 35% being based on race, 29% based on sex and nearly 29% based on disability.

While the problems that exist in Hollywood are something that needs to be addressed and may make more interesting reading for the average consumer, as indicated above, there are other issues in our backyard that also need addressing and which sometimes do not attract the same level of attention which they should.  A further conclusion reached by the IWPR determined that the poverty rate for women would be cut in half if women were paid the same rate for comparable men.  If you think about the long term cost of poverty in this country which creates unnecessary medical costs and which ultimately end up being paid by the taxpayers; and which also result in a lack of education being made available to the next generation of the future work force (which will only compound problems of unemployment and poverty) perhaps this is a time we should not take our eye off the ball on these issues as well.

Don’t get me wrong.  I would love to see Idris Elba win the Oscar for a staggering performance in “Beast of No Nation” but I would also love to wake up one day and read in the LA Times that the homeless population in Los Angeles and LA Country which has risen 55% since 2013 is on the decline.

As for equal representation by women, who knows…. perhaps come this November, we will finally see the first female President of the United States. Perhaps we are making some progress after all!

“Isn’t it amazing that we are all made in God’s image, and yet there is so much diversity among his people?”  Desmond Tutu