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2017 Oscars represent a shift, but Hollywood is still disproportionately white

In 2017, the winners of two of the four Oscars given to actors were African Americans. This represents a remarkable turn in the history of the Oscars. It is not, however, a historical accident. Instead, it is due to social media campaigns and activism.

In 2015, an activist named April Reign started the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in response to the overwhelmingly white Oscar nominees that year. When the Academy of Motion Pictures announced its 2016 Oscar nominees, the acting categories were again entirely white. In response, activists took to social media again with the hashtag. In 2016, the hashtag went viral and caught the attention of Hollywood. Filmmaker Spike Lee, actress Jada Pinkett- Smith, and others boycotted the 2016 Oscars over the striking lack of diversity in the nominees.

In June 2016, the Academy decided to do something about the racial imbalances in Oscar nominees. When the Academy extended 683 new membership invitations last year, 41% of them went to people of color. Changing the racial composition of the Academy has translated into a more balanced set of Oscar winners.

Blog Population Graph-1
Racial breakdown of US population in 2015 by Tanya Golash-Boza. Data taken from American Community Survey 2015. Used with permission.

In 2017, each of the four acting categories featured at least one nominee of color. As a result, half of the winners were black. African American actors Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis both took home Oscars, alongside white actors Casey Affleck and Emma Stone.

Blog Oscar Graph Pre 2017-1
Graph 2 by Tanya Golash-Boza. Used with permission. Data taken from Reel Inequality by Nancy Yuen.
Blog Oscar Graph 2017-1
Graph 3 by Tanya Golash-Boza. Used with permission. Data taken from Reel Inequality by Nancy Yuen.

The presence of people of color as nominees and winners in the top categories represents a welcome shift for the Oscars. Notably, Dev Patel was the first actor of Indian descent to be nominated in 13 years and Mahershali Ali was the first Muslim actor to ever win an Oscar. However, no actor of indigenous, Latino/a, or Asian descent has won an Oscar in the past 16 years (Yuen 2016). Issues of representation of people of color in the media persist, and more work needs to be done.

According to a recent report on diversity in entertainment, only a quarter of all speaking roles for actors in films released in 2014 and prime-time first run television series were non-white, even though non-whites make up 37.9% of the US population.

Latino actors are the most underrepresented – only 5.8% of the speaking characters in 2014 were Latino, even though Latinos make up 17% of the US population. In 2013, there was not a single Latino with a leading role in the top ten movies of the year and scripted network TV shows. There were no Latinos among the top ten television show creators, and Latinos constituted just 1.1% of producers, 2% of writers, and 4.1% of directors in 2013. Finally, only one Latina ranked among the top 53 television, radio, and studio executives.

A 2016 study by Nancy Yuen found that even though whites make up 62.6% of the population, they constitute 74.1% of all speaking roles in film, 80.7% of all cable TV leads, 83.3% of all film leads, and 93.5% of all broadcast TV leads. Whites also account for 81% of all directors and 96% of all television network and studio heads.

The fact that two out of the four actors who won Oscars this year are African American is a remarkable milestone. It also teaches us a lesson about how greater diversity can be achieved in any arena. If you want to see more people of color in coveted positions, there needs to be diversity among the people who make the selections. Additionally, the pool of candidates from which you are choosing should be diverse.

Two African Americans won Oscars for their acting roles this year not just because they are excellent actors, but also because the Academy itself is more diverse than ever before, and the pool of nominees was the most diverse in history.

Featured image credit: 81st Academy Awards Ceremony by BDS2006. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Graph 2 and 3 credits: The Award of Merit statuette, fair use © A.M.P.A.S.®.

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