Diversifying film not just Academy’s responsibility

By Tim Rosenberger

Filmmakers may hold the ultimate power and responsibility for bringing diverse voices to the movies, but The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can still increase diversity in its own membership and predominately white Hollywood through influence and trendsetting.

Among the eight major competitive award categories at this year’s Academy Awards, fewer than five nominees are non-white or minorities. This is the second year in a row the Academy Awards have little diversity and many inside and outside Hollywood have vehemently protested it.

Sergio Mims, the programmer for Black Harvest since the African American Chicago film festival was founded 22 years ago, said film diversity is not a new problem. People were having these discussions in 1930s and 1940s.

“[They were saying] there’s no representation in movies, and if there are, in [most] cases they were stereotyped roles,” Mims said. “What happened at that point, and like what’s happening today, has always been black filmmakers who have  gone on to make their own movies independently to counteract the lack of images or the negative images you see on the screen.”

The absence of African American nominees this year has been particularly glaring. Even films predominately featuring African Americans — the “Rocky” sequel, “Creed,” which received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Sylvester Stallone, and “Straight Outta Compton,” which saw a Best Original Screenplay nomination for its two white writers — failed to diversify the awards.

The poster for "Straight Outta Compton," a film Fuller did not expect to see many award nods.
The poster for “Straight Outta Compton,” a film Fuller did not expect to see many award nods (Poster courtesy of LEGENDARY PICTURES).

“I was not surprised at all,” said Karla Fuller, an associate professor of film at Columbia College who studies racial and ethnic representation in Hollywood movies, “and I was aware, very much aware, of the strong performances [by] African Americans or black Brits like Idris Elba had done over the course of a year,”

“Straight Outta Compton” was not likely to get many award nods, Fuller said, because the Academy does not value the stories about African Americans because the films often do not make money. She said the Academy is a microcosm of America’s society as a whole.

Marlon Wayans, an African American actor, comedian and producer, for example, has experienced diminishing profits at the domestic box office for his past three films. His 2013 film “A Haunted House” was ranked number two at the box office in its opening weekend and it made about $40 million in its entire domestic run. His next two films dropped to number five and $17. 3 million in 2014 and number 10 and $11.2 million so far for his current film, “Fifty Shades of Black.” But the box office trends for black films, movies with black themes or a predominately African American cast, could be changing.

The  2014 Best Picture winner “12 Years a Slave” earned $187.7 million in worldwide box office revenues, with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the starring role. Comedian Tyler Perry’s movies have earned him about $765.5 million worldwide over the past 11 years. “Creed” has, so far, made a worldwide total of $172.2 million. With a worldwide gross of $201.6 million, “Straight Outta Compton” broke the record for the most money ever made by an African American director – F. Gary Gray – and for an R-rated film’s opening weekend – $60.2 million.

How do these box office numbers compare to some white dominated films from this time last year? “American Sniper” made an overall profit of $547.4 million worldwide, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” took in $414.4 million and “Fifty Shades of Grey” made about $571 million. All of these films were also R-rated, which usually hurts a film’s box office because fewer people can see it.

Benedict Cumberbatch starring as Alex Turing in 2014 Oscar nominated film "The Imitation Game," which also saw a greater world wide profit, $227.8 million, than some other Black films (Photo courtesy of STUDIOCANAL).
Benedict Cumberbatch starring as Alan Turing in 2014 Oscar nominated film “The Imitation Game,” which garnered a greater worldwide profit of $227.8 million. (Photo courtesy of STUDIOCANAL).

The situation for African Americans in film has improved over the past 20 to 30 years, Fuller said. But she believes there was a greater awareness and interest in African American stories in the 1960s when “Blaxploitation” films — movies starring black actors that have a heavy focus on sex, violence and romance — appeared. Actors like Sidney Poitier — lead in such films as “In the Heat of the Night” and “To Sir, with Love” — were also starring in general release movies.

In another clear trend, black films have gotten to the point where they attract more than just black audiences, Fuller said. The box office returns for recent  movies, such as “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” reinforces this assertion.

The Academy itself has also progressed with its current appointment of African American Cheryl Boone Isaacs as president, Fuller said. Unfortunately, the membership is still predominately white males.

Efforts have been made to diversify academy membership. Members are now required to have three 10-year terms earning lifetime voting rights. New governor seats have also been added to bring a wider array of people and outlooks to the Academy. Finally, by 2020, the academy board hopes to double the number of women and non-white members to 48 percent and 14 percent of total membership.

While these alterations are a good thing, Fuller said, the film industry itself also has to work towards change.

“I think that’s the power that the academy has – to step up and be the model for everybody else to kind of follow,” Fuller said, “but not to begin and end with the Academy. They can only do so much as an organization.”

The Academy’s membership changes are a step in the right direction, Mims said, but they are not the answer. The solution to the problem, he said, is really in the hands of independent black filmmakers and not the Academy or the studios.

Mims has a special connection to independent filmmaking, having worked as an assistant director in the 80s and early 90s with people such as movie maker Reginald Hudlin, a producer of this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Mims said the true answer to the problem is black filmmakers creating more opportunities for themselves to make their own movies and get them distributed and seen by people.

Oscar Micheaux, a pioneering black filmmaker who wrote and directed films from 1919 to 1948. (Photo is public domain).
Oscar Micheaux, a pioneering black filmmaker who wrote and directed films from 1919 to 1948. (Photographer is unknown/public domain/ALBANY.EDU).

“There has been a history of black filmmakers since the silent era,” Mims said. “There’s always been black filmmakers. The overwhelming majority of them have worked outside the studio system. They have worked independently, because you’re not going to wait around for Hollywood [to] decide to make a movie that you want to see.”

Donald Bogle is a noted movie historian who has authored many books about African Americans in film and television over the past 43 years. Despite the current controversy, he said, more African Americans have won or been nominated for Oscars in the new millennium than at any other time in movie history.

The industry and movies have changed, he said, but they have to continue to change. When movies like “Straight Outta Compton” come across the desks of studio executives, those executives are still worried the film will have a limited audience. This, Bogle said, is not necessarily the case.

“We’re in an interesting place socially and politically where a new generation is interested in some kind of social or political comment in films or in television,” Bogle said. “That can’t be ignored.”

This growing interest in social and political issues as well as society’s current openness to new stories and ideas means black films can draw larger white audience members, Bogle said. He compared black films to rap music, an art created and performed by African Americans that has found large and diverse audiences beyond the black community.

But with Boone Isaacs pushing for diversification since becoming Academy president in 2013, Fuller, Mims and Bogle all said change will not be immediate.

“You don’t want it to take a lot of time, but it may take more time,” Bogle said. “Let’s hope it’s not going to take a lot of time, but for her to get in and really change [things]…You can’t change it overnight.”

Photos at top: All 10 Oscar nominees for Best Actor and Best Actress. Top, from left to right: Bryan Cranston (The Peabody Awards/FLICKR), Matt Damon (Bill Ingalls/FLICKR), Leonardo DiCaprio (Photo/U.S. Department of State). Michael Fassbender (Georges Biard/CREATIVE COMMONS) and Eddie Redmayne (Gordon Correll/FLICKR). Bottom, from left to right: Cate Blanchett (Paul Cush/FLICKR), Brie Larson (FLICKR user Dorthy), Jennifer Lawrence (Gage Skidmore/GAGESKIDMORE.COM), Charlotte Rampling (Georges Biard/CREATIVE COMMONS) and Saoirse Ronan (Siebbi/IPERNITY, (Wikipedia/Creative Commons). All photos have been slightly cropped.