The controversy surrounding the second straight year where no actors of color are nominated for an Academy Award has essentially left Oscars host Chris Rock no choice but to address the elephant in the room—race and ethnicity in Hollywood. And putting an unapologetically honest comedian like Rock front and center on national television to skewer industry decision-makers may be exactly what Hollywood needs to finally understand that #OscarsSoWhite is no laughing matter.
To their credit, the Academy has acknowledged the problem they have with inclusion and have pledged to recruit new members who better reflect diversity of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. While this step is welcomed, it does not get to the root of the problem with Hollywood as a whole. Nominating more Black, Latino, and Asian American actors for Oscars will not change the fact that roles for those actors come few and far between. It will not convince head movie executives to bankroll films that tell the unique stories of minorities outside the lens of White filmmakers and executives.
A recent study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism found that of the more than 400 films and TV series examined, fewer than one-third of the characters were minorities, with Latinos accounting for just about 6 percent. Latinas in particular were underrepresented and frequently featured in highly sexualized roles.
The industry needs to change from the top down. In a piece on the stunning lack of diversity throughout Hollywood, the Washington Post ran the numbers on what the make-up of the top tier of decision-makers in the industry looks like. Unsurprisingly, it is very old, it is very White, and it is very male.
In the Post article, Academy member and director Jennifer Warren explains: “The academy is a microcosm of the industry, and it (shows) benign neglect more than outright prejudice. It’s not that the industry is prejudiced. It’s that they’re disinterested in anything but themselves.”
The problem is also not limited to those at the top. As many directors and actors have said when asked about the Oscars controversy, there needs to be more representation and inclusion of minorities in every aspect of the industry in order to truly change the culture. That includes everybody from entry-level writers to the agents who represent talent. In a New York Times piece, America Ferrara details exactly how often stereotypes of race and ethnicity are heard:
“I had just won [a top award at Sundance], and [my manager] wanted me to audition for the Latina chubby girl in a pilot. She wasn’t even the lead; she was just the sidekick, with the same joke in every scene. I said, “I’m not going in for that.” When I ultimately left him, he [told] another of my reps, “Somebody should tell that girl that she has an unrealistic idea of what she can accomplish in this industry.”
Hollywood can do better. Unless we have more diverse writers, producers, and executives, we will continue to be portrayed as the chubby sidekick or the oversexualized temptress or the drug kingpin. But the Hispanic American story, the Black American story, the Asian American story, the Native American story, and the LGBT American story is so much more than these one-dimensional stereotypes. These are the stories of modern-day America and it is past time Hollywood acknowledges and celebrates them.