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Why is representation in Hollywood even still a debate?

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If you’re a film buff I’m sure you’ll have at least cursorily scrolled through the list of this year’s Academy member invitees, and if you’re anything like me, the list will have brought a smile to your face.

Names like Riz Ahmed, Naomie Harris, John Cho, Donal Glover, Priyanka Chopra, and Warren Davis to name a few surely exemplify a step in the right direction regarding representation in Hollywood, right?

When you look at the numbers, though, they tell a less groundbreaking story. Of the record-setting 774 invitees, 28% percent are women and 13% are people of colour — each only one percent up from last year. It’s progress, sure, but only incrementally.

It’s frustrating to see the Academy being heaped with praise for giving women and people of colour the recognition they deserve — they should do it because it’s their job, not because they simply want to avoid another #OscarsSoWhite disaster.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen some criticism. The Hollywood Reporter’s awards columnist, Scott Feinberg, controversially wrote: “The bottom line is that the Academy cannot fix the industry's diversity problems any more than a tail can wag a dog. This is not a problem that can be reverse-engineered.”

Sorry Mr Feinberg, but I have to disagree. No one can deny that this year’s Academy Award nominations were the most diverse in history. That’s not a coincidence. As a direct result of #OscarsSoWhite, films like Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Fences, and Lion were green-lit and funded. 

A lot of the brilliant actors involved in those films have been around for ages, but for many of them, this was their first time working on an “Oscar-worthy” project. The issue with representation in Hollywood has never been that there aren’t diverse actors out there with the talent to star in “Oscar-worthy” films, though that’s often an excuse given. The issue fundamentally is that filmmakers, directors, production companies, script-writers, casting directors, etc, don’t tend to be diverse themselves, and their own perspectives colour their work. 

Though progress is being made, straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gender, and male are still seen as defaults. Any deviation from those “norms” is considered a risk a filmmaker must take. We’ve got to a point where deviation in one of those areas isn’t so much of a risk — a lead actor who ticks all those boxes except female instead of male? Sure. Black instead of white? Just about. Asian? No chance, Hollywood will just cast someone white instead. 

Academy Award Best Picture winner Moonlight’s black gay story broke that unwritten rule. So did the black female story of Hidden Figures and the Indian story of Lion. These brilliant diverse actors, writers and directors have been given the spotlight they deserve, and now they have a platform to continue making “Oscar-worthy” films. They also have a platform to give a helping hand to up and coming diverse talent. 

Moonlight is based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, who drew upon his own experiences to write it. The director of the film, Barry Jenkins, took on the project because he saw some of himself and his own childhood experiences reflected back at him in the play. Perhaps that wasn’t the only reason — perhaps the play had the power to move any director to make that film … but I doubt it. It’s a fundamental truth that diverse stories need diverse creators.

Now, the issue of reverse-engineering is a tricky one. Perhaps it is contrived, but how else can it be done? If young diverse talent don’t see themselves represented at the highest level, why would they bother pursuing their dreams? If there aren’t diverse writers and directors to give up-and-coming diverse talent a chance, they’ll never get that chance. 

Mr Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter felt the need to list people of colour who he felt didn’t deserve this honour from the Academy, which is honestly one of the most destructive and unhelpful contributions to this debate that I’ve seen. Joke’s on him though … one of these days someone’s going to put together of all the white people since the Academy’s inception that haven’t deserved the honour. 

The concept of the Academy itself is outdated and elitist — notice how I’ve been putting “Oscar-worthy” in quotes for this whole article? The concept of “good art” is a difficult one in any situation — usually it just means “art the elite like.” The least Hollywood can do is diversify the elite of the film world. And the least we can do is support the fantastic diverse talent that are paving the way for young creatives.

The 90th Academy Awards will take place on 4th March 2018.

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