Three years after Moonlight, why are awards shows still so white?
When, in February 2017, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway first announced the winner of the Academy Award for best picture, it was a brief peek into an alternate reality. Somewhere, in a parallel universe, our mirror selves are continuing to live along the timeline where La La Land – a perfectly charming, self-congratulatory musical about two attractive, white heterosexuals – won the Oscar. A moment later, however, nervous men in tuxedos began to mill on stage, envelopes were swapped around and we were returned to our current timeline. Now we live in this reality, the one where Moonlight, a black, gay, coming-of-age story won the best picture Oscar in 2017, signalling a new dawn of industry recognition for marginalised film-makers and their stories.
Or do we? The nominee lists for major film awards in 2020 have, once again, dazzled with their gleaming whiteness. Not a single person of colour was nominated in the Baftas acting categories (and Margot Robbie was nominated twice), while the Oscars only managed a best actress nod for Cynthia Erivo in Harriet. The actors who gave acclaimed-yet-overlooked performances this year include Awkwafina in The Farewell, Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers, Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy, Lupita Nyong’o in Us and the entire cast of Parasite, who did, at least, pick up a gong for best ensemble cast at the notably more diverse Screen Actors Guild awards.
Female directors such as Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang, Céline Sciamma, Lorene Scafaria, Mati Diop and Joanna Hogg have also been excluded from all-male shortlists at the Oscars, Baftas and Golden Globes. With the benefit of hindsight, 2017’s best picture win seems less like a turning point in history and more like another of the Academy’s occasional anomalies – as when Hattie McDaniel won best supporting actress for Gone With the Wind in 1939, and it was another 51 years before another black woman, Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost, won an acting prize at the Oscars. Moonlight’s afterglow faded quickly.
True, some things have changed since 15 January 2015, when the Washington DC-based lawyer-turned-writer April Reign tweeted: “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.” The hashtag began as gentle, if pointed, mockery, but soon grew into a rallying cry for film industry diversity. When the 2016 nominees were announced, #OscarsSoWhite trended on Twitter for the second year running. By the time Leonardo DiCaprio, Brie Larson, Mark Rylance and Alicia Vikander had collected their statuettes, the Oscars’ lack of diversity was a global row, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Ampas) had stated that it aimed to double the number of minority members by 2020.
Well, it is 2020 now, so how did that go? Despite increasing new inductees year-on-year between 2015 and 2018, and boosting the overall membership from around 6,000 to around 9,200, the Academy did not quite meet its own targets. Its membership of colour has doubled from eight to 16% (a more detailed breakdown is not available), but women still make up only 32% of members, up from 25% in 2015. As for the #OscarsSoWhite founder Reign, she says she has never been contacted directly by the Academy about these issues. “I do not claim to have all of the answers, but I believe that the outcry we have heard for over five years from film-makers and moviegoers alike proves that a fresh set of eyes is needed,” she tells the Guide.
It is a similar story in the UK, where the head of Bafta’s film committee, Marc Samuelson, called its all-white acting nominations “infuriating” and committed to a “detailed review within and outside the membership”. However, neither he nor anyone else from Bafta was available for comment on what that might mean in practice or how it would improve on previous diversity drives. In a speech at the Rose d’Or TV awards in December, the informal Bafta diversity adviser Lenny Henry acknowledged the industry’s weariness. “I know you think we’ve been here before, and we have – isn’t it bloody tedious?” he said. “So to stop us having the same conversation year after year, let’s start seeing true diversity, not as a problem to be solved, but as an ambition to be realised.”
Marcus Ryder, the media diversity campaigner who co-wrote the speech, expanded on Sir Lenny’s point in an email: “Our victories are fleeting because we do not have the infrastructure to build upon. That is precisely why Lenny and I and other campaigners fight for structural changes, from ring-fenced funds to diversity tax breaks. Rather than getting excited about one awards ceremony, Bafta needs to work with the BFI, BBC and even the DCMS [Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] to see how they can advocate for structural changes in the industry. Finding a way to nominate a few more Bame actors is not the answer.”
And in the meantime? It is not just the slow pace of change that frustrates, it’s the suspicion that the measures currently in place won’t ever result in change of any significance. This year, the films and the performances were there, so why weren’t they recognised? Previous initiatives have focused on diversifying the voters themselves, but Reign believes it is also necessary to change the lens of the existing membership: “A step forward would be to make all eligible films available to Academy members online. In that way, there can be no excuse why members did not see a particular film; films would literally be at their fingertips.”
What all these approaches share is the underlying assumption that every last producer, sound editor and grip is broadly in agreement about the value of diversity. But perhaps it is now time to question that, too. When the actor and Bafta member Laurence Fox criticised this year’s awards favourite 1917 for “the oddness in the casting” of Nabhaan Rizwan as a Sikh soldier fighting in the first world war and it “diverting me away from what the story is”, how many others did he speak for? Has cinema been caught up in the culture war crossfire? (Fox has since apologised for his “clumsy” comments.)
On this basis, you could hardly blame marginalised film-makers if they sacked off the Oscars and said bollocks to Bafta, too. “Viewership for the Oscars ceremony has been down in recent years,” concedes Reign. “Being nominated or winning an Oscar has not significantly translated into tangible benefits for traditionally underrepresented film-makers. While the Academy Award is still seen by some as the pinnacle in film, it is through ceremonies like the Alma [American Latino Media Arts] awards, the Glaad [Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation] awards, and the NAACP Image awards where traditionally underrepresented communities finally receive the recognition they have earned.”
Or perhaps it is not just the lens on diversity that needs to change; maybe the whole narrative structure is in need of a rewrite. “I reject the notion of linear progression altogether,” says Ryder. “The simple idea that things are getting better or worse is flawed: the truth is all these things can happen at the same time. It also creates an insidious narrative that I hear from lots of execs who say: ‘Things are getting better, they might not be getting better at the speed you want, but you can’t deny things are getting better!’” He suggests a different way of looking at inclusivity. “Instead, we should celebrate victories like Moonlight and fight against setbacks – like BaftasSoWhite – but not tie the two together.”
And so, even three years on, Moonlight’s win is worth celebrating. In this reality, anyway.