In late February 2016, the Academy Awards nominations for the following year were released. While the actors and filmmakers who were nominated celebrated their triumph, others were outraged—for the second year in a row the twenty actors and actresses nominated for the top four categories were white.
This notion led to the #OscarsSoWhite movement that arguably made more noise than the Oscars themselves. A conversation that was already present now was going to heard by everyone. Several actors included Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Will Smith boycotted the award show and others included George Clooney, Reese Witherspoon and President Barack Obama showed their support for the call to create a more inclusive and representative environment.
Michigan State professor and expert on film and diversity Jeff Wray said the Oscars are just a small representation of the real issues with diversity that are happening in Hollywood.
“The Oscars are like the tip of the iceberg, but underneath that, you see like a ‘Hollywood so white’” Wray said. “Underneath that is all of the issues that lead to the Oscars being so white. It just doesn’t occur—people make decisions, people don’t make decisions, people don’t take chances.”
Around the same time, the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism did a study that analyzed over 400 films and TV Shows released the previous year. The study showed that only 33 percent of speaking characters in films were women, even though women represent over half the US population, and only 28.3 percent of speaking characters were from non-white racial/ethnic groups.
“Hollywood is just reflective of America, Hollywood is not anything special with its ‘racism,’” Wray said. “It’s a big money game, so people are very reluctant to dole out money to something they’re not sure of, and that’s a part of an economic racism. Part of the answer is that you just need many more black executives, you need many more women executives, You need the executive money deciding the level of Hollywood to look more like America.”
According to the USC study, only 20 percent of corporate boards, chief executives, and executive management teams were represented by women, and women only represent one-quarter of the top executives. “As power increases, the participation or representation of women one executive ranks decreases,” the study says. Further, only 12% of film directors are underrepresented nationalities—the other 87% are white.
“It’s about who is greenlighting those decisions and who is giving the okay for certain stories to be told,” author of the study Stacy Smith said in an interview with NPR. “When a very narrow slice of the population is in control of power and has the ability to greenlight a project, then we are going to see products and stories that reflect that narrow worldview.”
The study claims that the findings are representative of a strategy that “relies on tokenistic inclusion rather than integration.” It also offers solutions to the issue stating that film and television companies should decide on target inclusion goals, and recognize and alter stereotypical thinking.
One show-runner who is seemingly making all the right moves in regard to representation is Shonda Rhimes. Rhimes is the head of the production company Shondaland who produce the three shows that make up the most popular night of television. Dubbed “TGIT,” Thursday night and ABC are home to three of the top grossing shows on television, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder.
Rhimes, the creator of all three shows, was recently inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. She was only the third black female to do so following Oprah Winfrey and singer Diahann Carroll.
Her approach to creating a more inclusive environment was one that took some planning. The first show Rhimes created was Grey’s Anatomy. While it had a very diverse cast, the protagonist and main character of the story was a white woman. The next two series that Rhimes produced, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, were both led by black women.
“Oh, definitely,” Wray said when asked if he thought her move to have a white women lead her first show, and then follow it up with two stories surrounding black women was a strategic and purposeful move. “It’s got to be.”
Wray says representation in film and TV is important because it reassures young people that even though it may seem like the odds are against them, they can do this.
“A lack of models is something that holds people back from trying to do a certain thing. That kind of exposure is important, not that everyone is going to be a filmmaker, but just to know the possibilities. To me that’s some of the greatest symbolism of President Obama. Just to know that it’s possible—it’s not probable, but it’s possible.”