Modern Hollywood has proven itself to be the battleground for racial representation. This came to a head when 2016’s Oscar nominees were announced, sparking a cavalcade of controversy over the almost exclusively white male field. From there, the #OscarsSoWhite movement was born. In virtually every major category, we’ve seen a stunning whitewash that ignores a sizable swathe of talent. A recent study reported by Variety though tells us that the issues with whitewashing go far deeper than the Oscars.
Variety’s report pulls few punches. The study they cite aptly labels Hollywood as a “straight, white, boys club,” pointing to a collection of damning data from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Pulling from 109 films and 306 cable and streaming series, the findings show us that a third of all speaking roles are held by women, under 30% feature minorities (who incidentally make up 47% of the population now), and a meager 2% starred LGBT characters. The icing on the cake? 20% of all the movies and shows looked at in the study didn’t contain a single black character.
Don’t let a perceived lack of options exonerate the whitewashed Oscar field just yet though. This year’s choices featured Ryan Coogler (director) and Michael B. Jordan (lead actor) for Creed, F. Gary Gray (director) for Straight Out of Compton, Will Smith (lead actor) in Concussion, and Idris Elba (lead) in Beasts of No Nation. Shockingly, none of these actors or directors scored a nomination from the Academy. It should be counted as a minor miracle that we had this many nonwhite Oscar contenders in the first place, especially given the lack of parity USC’s data points to.
This controversy comes in a year-long period marred by missteps from Hollywood’s casting agencies. 2015 saw the Irish-Italian Rooney Mara cast as the Native American Tiger Lily in Pan, a role that even she regrets taking less than a year after the fact. Mara’s statements concerning the incident are as telling as any in the whitewashing conversation spurred on by the Oscars.
There were two different periods; right after I was initially cast, and the reaction to that, and then the reaction again when the film came out. I really hate, hate, hate that I am on that side of the whitewashing conversation. I really do. I don’t ever want to be on that side of it again. I can understand why people were upset and frustrated.”
Things haven’t improved much in the young new year either. Gods of Egypt features Gerard Butler and his Scottish brogue as the Egyptian god of chaos Set, and Danish Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the patron god of ancient Egypt, Horus. The rest of the cast isn’t any more progressive in its casting either, with our everyman lead played by the Australian Brenton Thwaites. Here we have a film set in ancient Egypt, about the gods of that very same culture, starring an almost exclusively white cast. It’s something that’s beginning to drive audiences away too, with most estimates predicting a disappointing $15 million opening weekend for a film with a massive $140 million budget.
All this circles us back to the data of USC’s study. The simple truth of Hollywood right now is that Hollywood isn’t casting minority actors, and when a non-white role is available, a white actor is still cast anyway. Combine that with the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and 2016 may end up being the year that this issue bubbles over and erupts. Hollywood clearly needs a gut check in the realm of equality. The only question that remains is whether or not it’ll learn its lesson sooner rather than later.
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