A day after Academy Award nominations were announced, the top story continues to be around diversity in Hollywood — specifically, the lack thereof.
ICYMI: For the first time in 19 years, all top acting nominees are white. Many observers had predicted that David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King Jr. in "Selma," would get a nomination. The film's director, Ava DuVernay — who would have been the first black woman to get an Oscar nod for directing — was also overlooked, despite the fact that "Selma" got a best picture nomination and gets a 99% fresh rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
In the wake of the nominations, the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite generated thousands of comments on Twitter. The Oakland Tribune’s front page story carried the headline: “And the Oscar for best Caucasian goes to…”
The Frame's John Horn spoke with producer Stephanie Allain about the state of diversity in Hollywood. Allain is a former studio executive-turned-producer whose recent credits include “Dear White People” and “Beyond the Lights." She is also the director of the Los Angeles Film Festival and an Oscar voter And we should add that she’s African-American.
(NOTE: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not make its president available to come on The Frame.)
Do the Oscar nominations reflect the voting tendencies of the Academy or are they a mirror of the kinds of movies Hollywood studios make?
Well, it has to start with how many movies are made, because that's the pool that the Academy pulls from. So I think it's both. I would like to see more films being made with people of color behind the camera and in front of the camera, because the more times at-bat we have, the better we get.
Look at Ava [DuVernay]: Ava's on her fifth movie. She's not just an overnight sensation. It takes time at-bat to get good. That's called practice, that's called developing your craft and, for good or bad, it takes a little bit of money to get up to bat on movies. So I think the more opportunities we have to make movies, the more those movies will rise to a level of critical acclaim and noticeability and get in front of the Academy voters.
But you and I both know that, for all of its talk about progressive politics, Hollywood is a business, not a social services agency, so how would the industry be motivated to change its behavior?
In the UCLA Ralph Bunche study that came out last year — which was really just an examination of television, but I think is applicable — the TV shows, both cable and network, that had a showrunner of color or a person of color in the leading roles, did better financially.
I think that says that America is changing and people want to see the world they live in reflected. And I think for contemporary movies, unless you're in Appalachia or some secluded section of the country, people are used to enjoying a life that is diverse. When you click on the TV or you put down your money to buy [movie] tickets, I think part of what you're looking for is an experience that you can project yourself onto, that you can see yourself in. So I think that Hollywood will catch up, because I think the finances will speak for themselves.
So Hollywood, in your mind, is lagging behind TV. Why is TV doing a better job?
There's more opportunities. You're not just working for one-to-ten years on one movie. If you have one TV show, you have 13-to-22 [episodes] to give somebody a shot at directing. Again, the more times at-bat, the better people get, and I think TV just has a lot more opportunity.
You famously worked on John Singleton's film, "Boyz n the Hood." Do you think it would be any different if you tried to make that film now?
Not for me [laughs]. Because I still make those movies. That's what I do, and I wake up in the morning and figure out how to make a movie that seemingly flies in the face of what Hollywood is paying for now. If "Boyz n the Hood" fell in my lap now, I would be super excited.
When you look at the nominations there are obviously causes for concern, but what gives you optimism? What makes you hopeful?
What makes me hopeful is that there are a lot of talented writers, directors, producers, and actors of color in Hollywood. I look at "Dear White People," for example. [Producers] Lena Waithe and Justin [Simien] and Angel Lopez and Ann Le — these are all young people who are not shy about creating content that mirrors their own lives.
I just feel like it's trending upwards, and even though it looks like we might have gone backwards because of the lack of diversity in the Academy Award nominations, I don't believe it. I think we're moving forward, and when I see Ava get nominated for a Golden Globe, and I see that ["Selma" cinematographer] Bradford Young is shooting not just black movies and bringing his excellence across the board, I'm so hopeful. I feel like we're in a golden age and we're going to continue moving forward.
There are other award ceremonies like the Spirit Awards that did recognize Ava as a director and David Oyelowo as an actor, and Carmen Ejogo as an actress. I feel like there are opportunities. The Academy is the cream of the crop. Let's face it — everybody wants to be nominated for an Academy Award, everybody dreams of winning an Academy Award.
But over the last few years, especially since Dawn Hudson has been there and Cheryl Boone Isaacs [the first black president of the Academy] has been there, I've seen so many of my colleagues of color be invited into the Academy, so that's a positive trend. Once it becomes a critical mass and there are all kinds of people of color who have achieved that level of excellence and are voters, then I think we'll begin to see a real, sustainable difference.
One of the issues within the Academy is that, once you're a member, you're a member for life. So it's a little bit like a supertanker: it's very hard to turn and change course. You can try to diversify the membership, but it's going to take a lot of time, and even as you're bringing in younger members, you've got memberships that are growing older. The median age of the Academy is 63. Obviously, the Academy is heavily white, but do you think age plays a factor in this as well?
I think so. You need to realize that the younger members who are coming in, and I don't know what the stats are, but the new membership is a lot more diverse than the membership was 10 years ago. It's almost like the census, which told us that in 2014 more brown babies were born in the United States than white. I think you just have to look at the stats to realize that the people who are buying movie tickets, the people who are making movies — it's a generational change that is afoot.