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The 'Oscar conversation' is only as white as The Hollywood Reporter wants it to be

Every Oscar season, The Hollywood Reporter, one of the most powerful trade magazines in entertainment, runs a series of roundtables featuring the stars poised to win it all at the Academy Awards. And, with some notable exceptions, those roundtables are almost always exclusively white. It's a tradition as hallowed as the awards themselves, but it’s getting harder to get away with. 2015 brought with it one of the most robust ongoing conversations about race and gender in Hollywood, and even THR had to take a step back and explain itself after its most recent cover, whose talented, uniformly Caucasian ensemble included Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, and Helen Mirren. THR executive features editor Stephen Galloway got out in front of the backlash to explain why it wasn't the magazine's fault. Rather, "the awful truth is that there are no minority actresses in genuine contention for an Oscar this year."

...even for me, a white man, it was impossible to ignore the fact that every one of these women is white — whether old or young, English, Australian or American. That was appalling. The awful truth is that there are no minority actresses in genuine contention for an Oscar this year. Straight Outta Compton, which provided some great roles for African-American men (and whose success bolsters the case that studios ignore minority audiences at their peril) had no female leads. Furious 7? Not quite Oscar bait.

Before criticizing this response, it's important to unpack what "contention" means in this context. Being a serious Oscar contender isn't only about putting in a great performance, though that's certainly important. It's about playing the awards game. To play that game, you need a PR army to knock down the door of publications like THR to build up buzz. That kind of targeted buzz means Oscar voters — who, keep in mind, read THR — will know what movies to single out for nominations. That game has been the status quo for decades, and there's a lot of money for expensive photo shoots riding on maintaining that status quo. Hence, actresses like Jennifer Lawrence, who are both excellent and have massive cultural cachet, can build an Oscar contention narrative for movies like Joy that haven't even been theatrically released yet. It's all marketing.

The Oscar contention narrative is basically marketing

Roundtables are supposed to give readers a sense of what's important, of what matters. But those roundtables are bought and sold. Even though the industry may recognize the woeful lack of diversity in film, they're not financially incentivized to do much to correct it. There are fewer people of color getting roles, thus fewer actresses of color who have the resources and access for a PR army to advocate on their behalf. As such, it's easier on THR’s end to highlight white stars who have influence and name recognition.

That's how covers like this happen:

THR 2012

These women, in THR’s view, were the contenders for the 2013 Oscars, and are all incredible talents. Naturally, most were nominated. Quvenzhané Wallis, not pictured here, got a nomination, too. It can be assumed THR just didn’t think her performance was exceptional enough at the time.

The exceptions to this trend do matter. Earlier this year, THR ran a cover for its comedy actress roundtable, featuring Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Gina Rodriguez, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kate McKinnon, and Ellie Kemper. It's a great cover — not only because all six women are superb comedians, but because it helps illustrate how TV is getting it right where movies aren't. The last few years have seen women of color make huge, high-profile inroads: shows like Empire, Jane the Virgin, Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish, and How to Get Away with Murder are redefining the conversation on television. Empire was the first broadcast series in 20 years to increase its viewership from week to week. Viola Davis was the first black woman to win the Emmy for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series for her lead role in HTGAWM. Nobody can make the argument anymore that it’s too risky to cast actresses of color in television. Actresses of color in film still have a hard time getting roles and getting recognized.

THR Comedy

Those actresses who do succeed have to struggle harder. Consider THR's 2013 actress roundtable. Lupita Nyong'o, Oprah, and Octavia Spencer were glorious that year, and Lupita went on to win Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars. Lupita, just like everyone else, played by the marketing rulebook to enhance her visibility, and it worked. But that doesn’t mean she played on a level field. Amy Adams and Julia Roberts both appeared in films that couldn’t be anymore different. Lupita, Oprah, and Octavia all appeared in films that dealt with race head on, the kind of films that Oscar voters more easily understand as prestige projects and have a harder time making excuses for ignoring.

THR 2013 cover

The Hollywood Reporter wants you to believe it is an unrivaled influencer in the "Oscars conversation" but also insists its hands are mysteriously tied when it comes to representation. Regardless of campaign budgets, THR has the kind of institutional clout to actually push for Hollywood to be a little less monochromatic. Galloway’s "serious contention" argument is incredibly flimsy — and sounds like a euphemism for the same tired Hollywood marketing and systemic racism we’ve been seeing ever since the industry’s inception.

What about Tessa Thompson in Creed? THR itself just praised the film, and said she "seriously brightens every scene she's in." And what about Kitana Rodriguez and Mya Taylor in Tangerine, a Sundance darling that's already mounted an Oscar campaign? Just to give you a stark picture of how this machine works, consider the fact that Eddie Redmayne, a cisgender white man, is in "serious contention" for his second Oscar for playing a transwoman in The Danish Girl. Meanwhile, Taylor and Rodriguez, two transwomen of color, are not considered to be in "serious contention" for Tangerine. Looking back on the universal critical praise for the film and its stars, its clear merit has nothing to do with it.

When nobody takes responsibility, nothing changes

It’s not news that Hollywood is still severely imbalanced when it comes to race and gender, but when nobody takes responsibility, nothing changes. Studio heads and producers have the power to increase diversity in film, but so do agents, publicists, and, yes, the editorial staff of trade publications. In a machine this entrenched and staid, one person or publication passing the buck turns into the whole industry passing the buck. Ineffectual apologies don't cut it anymore. It's time to actually do the work, and few organizations are better positioned to lead the way than THR.

Correction: A previous version of this essay stated Naomi Watts was the only actress pictured in THR's 2012 roundtable to receive an Academy Award nomination. That was incorrect. Save for Marion Cotillard, all the actresses received a nomination.