Words by Matthew Romano
Illustrations by Katie Herchenroeder
For the casual viewer of this year’s Academy Awards, the 91st of its kind, it would seem that fading into the distance is January 2015’s #OscarsSoWhite, the trending tag that stormed media outlets, clouded the Academy, and casted shadows upon most awards shows. It is easy to be convinced by the diversity that was honored at this year’s awards: both supporting actor and actress awards went to people of color – Mahershala Ali and Regina King – Spike Lee finally got his long-awaited and long-deserved Oscar for his adapted screenplay BlacKkKlansman, and Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s critically acclaimed Mexican Foreign Language Film received 10 nominations, tying it with 2000’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” for the most received by a Foreign Language Film.
However, by assuming that the issues surrounding diversity have dissipated, we are doing an injustice to the people, groups, cultures, and talent of the ‘gap.’ By this, I mean that by hyper-focusing on and sugar-coating the attention to the road behind us on the path towards equal representation and recognition, we are forgetting those that are stuck somewhere in the road ahead, the gaps in representation that we still have not made enough effort to bridge, to enliven, and to empower.
Representation cannot be boiled down to an arbitrarily set number, it has no specific race, culture, sexuality, or gender in mind and, perhaps, it is not to be seen only as the light at the end of the tunnel that we should all be working towards reaching. Representation is not only about the end goal, but the journey it takes to get there. It is more feeling than fact, more passion than prescription. It is a relatively simple concept that has been inundated with complications.
So, what is representation really? Well, representation is the little brown boy sitting down in his living room with a glowing smile saying “Mama, they look like me.” It is the native Spanish speaker watching a movie not having to spend the entirety of it stuck translating the foreign English words to his home tongue. It is Sarah Aswell’s 6-year-old daughter saying to her mom, writer for Forbes magazine, “So, are Oscars only for girls?”
So, is this all? No, representation is more than just these 3 isolated anecdotes – it is packed with questions, answers, solutions, non-solutions, attempts, failures, and successes.
When looking at things like representation, diversity, progress (or lack thereof) in these areas, it is vital to know the context – especially when it comes to representing things in quantifiable terms. For example, one may point out the wins of African-American’s Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Bleacher in Costume Design and Production Design respectively for the instant hit of the Marvel universe – Black Panther. However, when looked at in the context of the history of the Oscars, Ruth E. Carter is the only Black winner of the Costume Design category and only one of 2 nominated and Bleacher is actually the first African-American nominated in the category.
With respect to the most prestigious acting awards of the ceremony, Best Actor/Actress, only 5 African-Americans (4 men, 1 woman) have won the award. So, if progress is, in fact, being made, it does not yet match up to history, does not signify equity, and, as statistics show, there is still so much more to be done. Representation’s lack of, well, representation, when put against its long history is something Nicole Budzinski speaks to when she says, “For the first time, I feel like the Academy actually gave it to people who deserved it.”
As said before, representation stands for all other minority groups and by only focusing on the lack of representation of one disenfranchised group is leaving the others in the dark or in the ‘gap’ as mentioned prior. For example, sans the categories specifically made out to women nominees, women are still largely underrepresented in many of the other gender-neutral categories. Kathryn Bigelow remains the only woman in the 91-year history of the Oscar’s to win the Best Director award for her direction of the 2009 Best Picture – The Hurt Locker.
Despite the success of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and its casting of Asian Americans in all major roles, the crew signifies another group that is critically underrepresented at these awards shows. To date, only 2 Asians have ever been nominated in lead actress/actor categories. One, Ben Kingsley, stands as the sole winner for his portrayal of Gandhi in the 1982 movie of the same name. In fact, despite its popularity, box office success, and strikingly memorable performances, Crazy Rich Asians was shutout from this year’s Oscars.
Of course, the Academy is not solely to blame for this underrepresentation of minority peoples in the mainstream film industry of America. This also has a lot to do with media coverage, the industry’s leading figures, the questions being asked, and what identifiable steps, if any, are being taken to resolve these inequalities.
Some of the typical questions asked in relation to the Oscars year to year, especially in the aftermath of 2015’s revelatory Oscars So White protests, are ones like: “Was the diversity of the Oscar’s encouraging?” or “Is there still more to be done to reach equal representation?” On one hand, there are answers to these questions that although obvious, must be stated. Budzinski says on this, “So diversity… you have people of color getting awards, which I think is fantastic, but I definitely think there is still a ways to go”.
Antara Chowdhury however, challenges the question to go the step further. She implores that we, as a whole, start asking the question that people all too often shy away from. This being, “Asking white men about what they’re doing to support art that represents the voices of those who are not usually represented (people of color, women, people with disabilities, people who are LGBT).”
Herein lies one of the issues that astonishingly seems to have flown under the radar despite it being the crux of meaningful conversation on representation. The underrepresented are not only underrepresented in awards shows but in the shows and films themselves. Often, people of diverse backgrounds, such as the majority of students at CCNY – including Chowdhury – whom hail from 150 different countries and speak 90 different languages, are not able to see themselves, their culture, their language, their situations and tribulations, represented or represented accurately on the screen. For example, when asked if she feels as if there are enough films being made representing people of her background, Chowdhury shares, “I have literally never watched an American movie, or can’t even think of one that exists, that features a Bangladeshi-American girl, so no. If I expand that to South Asian women in general, there are some examples, but they are few and far between.”
Being Guyanese myself with strong connections to the culture of South Asia and India, I can connect to this lack of representation. We shared in the applause for many of our culture that have made strides and garnered recognition (albeit small in comparison) or have stood out to us (even if to no one else): Mindy Kaling, Priyanka Chopra, Padma Lakshmi, and Letitia Wright are just a few that we mentioned. We specifically focused on females because although male representation from these cultures is also exceptionally low – it is often the female voice and presence that is shut out even more so. According to Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s “Inequality Across 1200 Popular Films,” only 48 of 1200 popular films from 2007 to 2018 featured an Underrepresented Female Lead or Co-Lead.
Some of the reasons for this underrepresentation of people of color and females is the white-male dominance in the film industry – specifically when it comes to those in the director’s seats. There is only so much a group of people who are silenced can be expected to do to reverse the hands of time, change direction of a ship that set sail 91 years ago, overturn deep-rooted orthodoxies and dogmatisms, and change the course of a history that has not been on their side.
We must do more than just wait around expecting for the disenfranchised to deliver us to the ‘promised land’ of representation. If representation is, in fact, about the journey, it is our responsibility to hold those in power, white males, accountable for creating passage for this journey to take place rather than block it through the whitewashing of casts and content or monopolization of media coverage and attention.
So, here we are, it is 2019, the Oscars are a month in the rear-view mirror, and a google search reaps a million different questions, answers (or attempts at answers), statistics that either applaud the diversity that is being recognized at the recent Academy Awards or ask the general population “Is there more to be done.” Yet, there are a few questions that are less often asked and information less accessible to the public – what is being done? What will people in positions of power and majority do? What else can the underrepresented and minorities in the film industry do?
Stacy L. Smith who is an associate professor at USC’s Communication and Journalism School – Annenberg and is the founder and director of the previously cited Annenberg Inclusion Initiative has proposed across various formats an “Inclusion Rider.” She says on this, “An inclusion rider implemented by an A-lister in their contract can stipulate that those roles reflect the world in which we actually live.”
The representation problem in the film industry, and specifically the Academy, is much more complex than an African American losing out on a nomination or an Asian star being snubbed.
These are important issues, no doubt, but they these issues run much deeper than the Academy. Underrepresentation is a chronic issue across all aspects of the film industry and more needs to be done on 1) Educating the public on what representation truly is and 2) how to comprehensively foster this representation in the industry from top to bottom. On this note, I will conclude with the same words as Frances McDormand in her 2018 Academy Awards acceptance speech for Best Actress in “Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri,” “I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: Inclusion rider.”