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The Oscars' whiteness problem runs deeper than the actors

The Oscars' whiteness problem runs deeper than the actors

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Oscar season is officially upon us, and with it comes the annual and all-too-necessary conversation about the lack of diversity among the nominees this year. The choices in the acting categories this year are stunningly white; as The Hollywood Reporter already remarked, there are no nonwhite actors in the acting categories this year. (Which is funny since the publication is as culpable as anyone in creating this situation.) This is a tremendous oversight. In a year where movies like Creed and Straight Outta Compton earned raves among critics, it’s galling that their actors aren’t being honored.

But we should look deeper. While our attention is usually fixed on movie stars, we should also look beyond the screen to the directors, producers, and technical professionals making these movies behind the scenes. Those categories aren’t immune to Hollywood’s endemic diversity problem. Digging into the full complement of nominees for this year’s Academy Awards shows just how white the Oscars, and the rest of the movie industry, really are.

Excluding Best Foreign Language Film and the already-lily-white acting achievement Oscars, the remaining awards are dominated by white men. Out of a total 186 potential recipients for such categories as production design and costuming, only 15 are people of color. Forty are women, and only two are women of color. That means a whopping 72 percent of all the nominees here are white and male.

The nominees for Best Original Score and Best Cinematography are all white men

The numbers are even more stark in specific categories. Of the 20 nominees for Best Visual Effects, there’s only one female nominee and no people of color whatsoever. Sound mixing has one person of color and no women. There are some exceptions, of course. The nominees for Best Original Song include such talents as The Weeknd, Lady Gaga, and transgender singer Antony Hegarty. Meanwhile, Best Makeup and Hairstyling is a 50/50 split between white men and women. However, the Best Original Score and Best Cinematography categories aren’t diverse in the slightest.

The most readily available answer for this issue is that there are simply more white male professionals working in these fields, and talent dictates who gets awards, not demographics. But "talent" is subjective, and tied up with all sorts of deep-seated preferences and prejudices within the Academy and the industry at large. Moreover, if we only hold Hollywood accountable for diversity as it appears on screen — the same view Matt Damon infamously espoused on the last season of Project Greenlight — then we're ignoring the root of the problem. Without a diverse community of directors, producers, and writers, the roles for diverse actors simply aren't there — or if they are, they're frequently one-dimensional and uninformed. Occasionally, the spotlight will be thrown on diverse characters, but the white people behind the screen own the narrative. As good as Straight Outta Compton was, it's telling that the only people involved in the film that the Academy thought worthy of accolades was its exclusively white screenwriting team.

The homogeneity of the nominated movie stars was what kicked off this week's Oscar outrage. But diversity starts behind the camera — with the people who are writing, directing, and producing the movies in the first place. Right now, it's predominantly white men making movies about white characters, played by white actors who win white Oscars. It's a cycle of sameness that leaves everyone else struggling to break through.

"But Alejandro González Iñárritu!" some people might be saying right now. I imagine the Revenant director is probably feeling a bit like Amy director Asif Kapadia right now: