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Monday, March 3, 2014

Representation at the Oscars

Please welcome backMaxine Naawu, who among many other things, blogs about art, film and photography at Side Hustle Stories and hosts her own artistic work at her website.

I’m not a huge fan of award shows, but I do take time out every year to watch the Oscars. Films have every element I love about the creative arts, everything from the acting to the music, and the Academy Awards are a fun night for me to appreciate the people behind these talents.

However, my love of the Academy Awards is hindered by the fact I rarely see people who look like me as nominees, much less winning the awards. In the 86 year history of the awards, 99% of the winners for best actress have been white. The one non-white woman to get a Best Actress award was a black woman, Halle Berry. Across all acting categories, 91% of the winners have been white. Seven were men of color.

As for directors, out of the 425 that have been nominated, only 18 were not white males, and out of those 18 only 3 have won: A white woman, Kathryn Bigelow, Taiwanese-American Ang Lee, and, last night, Alfonso Cuarón from Mexico. So yes, that means that only 2 non-white people have won the best director Oscar, one of them just yesterday. Seeing the complete lack of people of color in both the acting & directing side of filmmaking is especially demoralizing for non-white people who are acting and creating films of their own.

Source: Colorlines
One big reason not many films created by or starring people of color is, well, not many of these films are being made. Media outlets this past year reported that things were changing for black film in particular, calling 2013 a banner year for black film. Yet in reality, the percentage of (Oscar eligible) films* released in 2013 with predominantly black casts or main characters was about the same as it has been in years past – a little over 5% (see data here).  Stats for other groups of people of color are not much better. A study of 500 films from 2007 - 2012 found that Latino actors had only 4.2% of speaking roles, black actors had 10.8%, 5% were Asian and 3.6% were from other ethnicities.

Lots of arguments for why this is the case are thrown around, but the laziest argument is “Those films just aren't as good as the others.” I tend to hear this argument about black films in particular. I cannot tolerate any argument that simply dismisses films by non-whites as not as good without critiquing a system that excludes an entire swath of America from its perspective. 94% percent of Oscar Award voters in the Academy are white, with the majority of them being men. The majority of members in the acting, directing, and writing branches are white. And the way to join the Academy? Nomination by someone already in the Academy, after working on several films that “reflect the Academy’s highest standards” It’s not surprising that an institution made up of white men tends to celebrate films created and starring white men to the exclusion of others.

Why is fair representation in film important? For one, it’s NOT to fulfill some kind of U.S. census quota (Hear that Jerry Seinfeld?). It’s not to earn political correctness points or as a balm for white guilt. Ignoring people of color when it comes to casting and filmmaking erases us from a society that we have every right to be a part of, just like everyone else. Representation of people of color in film is about telling stories of living individuals whose perspectives are just as valid as whites'.

Recently there was controversy of the casting of Michael B. Jordan for the role of the Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four film reboot. Due to the original character being white in the original adaptation of the character (his sister is still white in the reboot), those upset about his casting called it unrealistic & breaking with tradition, diversity for diversity’s sake. I feel that even if it is untraditional & unrealistic (it’s not, mixed race families do exist) increasing depictions of non-whites in film is more important than strictly hewing to the source material every time. Being untraditional doesn’t hurt anyone. Having Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch adds another black sci fi hero for a child to look up in a media landscape that is severely lacking in them.

In fact, even if the number of non-white roles in Hollywood did fulfill some “census pie chart” quota, that wouldn’t necessarily be the equivalent of fair representation. Representation in filmmaking also means including roles that are substantive and that span the wide variety of existence, just like roles for white actors currently do. Using black film as comparison, the only roles that have won for best actress & best supporting actress: maid (twice), abusive mother (twice), spirit medium (a literal magical negro), singer, and, most recently, slave. Since 1994 the white winners for these categories have included army nurse, queen (twice), lawyer, serial killer & politician. Even if representation Oscar winners perfectly matched the representation in the US census, if people of color in stuck in limited roles, representation would still be lacking.

Representation in film is NOT about non-whites seeking approval or validation from whites. For those who work in the film industry, lack of representation in film equals lack of jobs, both on the acting side and on the production side. Parallel Film Collective and AFFRM are two examples out of MANY organizations that seek to create and promote films by people of color outside of a Hollywood structure that excludes us. The goal is always to have people in color in positions to greenlight & distribute films. But while this goes on, striving to break down the prejudices and indifference of whites in power so that more non-white films are distributed is still important.
Click for Whoopi Goldberg's story

What representation in filmmaking IS about is telling untold stories that reflect the humanity of the subjects. It’s about allowing stories from the perspective of people of color to not only be told but also heard for the enrichment of everyone. It’s about allowing children to see heroes who look like them on screen, expanding their world of what is possible in their own lives. It is about affirming beauty and strength in a multitude of shades & voices. It is about non-whites in addition to whites being full participants in the beautiful, humanizing effect that a powerful film can bring to a person’s life. It is about giving filmmakers and actors an avenue to tell their own stories.

A recent speech by Lupita Nyong'o illustrates this point so well. an excerpt:

And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful but that was no consolation: She’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful. And then Alek Wek came on the international scene. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden, Oprah was telling me it wasn’t. It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me.

Yesterday’s Best Supporting Actress win by Lupita Nyong’o, the Best Director win of Alfonso Cuarón and the Best Picture win of 12 Years a Slave do not automatically mean that Hollywood’s problem with representation in film are a thing of the past. Still I hope that these wins are another step toward the day that movies, and society, continuously affirm the ideal that:

“no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” 
- Lupita Nyong’o

*Nearly every film that has a theatrical release meets rules for Oscar eligibility. However, theatrical releases are expensive affairs that usually require the support of a major film studio or distributor.  Doubts about the financial success of a film with a non-white lead (whether valid or not), lack of access to the “old boys club” of film executives & producers, and even limited funding can affect whether a film gets distributed for theatrical release. There are often films by people of color that are created, and even win awards at festivals, that never see the light of day in theaters and are therefore ineligible for an Oscar.


  1. Dark and lovely Ms. Lupita just made me proud. I actually shed tears. I am so proud of her. I hope there will be more little girls with dark ebony skin who will no longer be ashamed of their complexion. All things are possible.

  2. Good points. Brooklyn 99 came on TV after this article was written, but I love that show too!


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