Oscar acting nominees have gotten more diverse. But this category lags behind

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For the second year in a row, all nominees in all four acting categories were white. Photo by Getty Images

For the second year in a row, all nominees in all four acting categories were white. Photo by Getty Images

When the 89th Oscars award ceremony airs Sunday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hopes to avoid the #OscarsSoWhite backlash it’s seen in the last few years.

The movement was born from an effort to highlight the lack of diversity in the actors and films nominated for prizes at the annual award ceremony. But this year, a record-tying seven minorities are nominated in best acting categories, after two years in which the list of nominees for the awards didn’t include a single non-white actor.

In 2016, Academy Awards president Cheryl Boonie Isaacs said she was both “heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion” in the nominations, and vowed to make changes. For this year’s awards, the Academy invited a record number of new voting members. Forty-six percent of them were female; 41 percent were people of color. The Academy did not reply to a request for comment about this year’s awards.

But in categories outside of acting, historically underrepresented groups remain largely unrecognized. Directing continues to stand out: In the Best Director category, one of the five biggest awards of the night, five men are nominated. Four of them are white.

This is nothing new, of course. In 2005, Ang Lee became the first person of color to win Best Director. Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro G. Iñárritu have also picked up the award. The three of them hold all five Best Director wins by people of color.

But the category’s issue with diversity goes beyond just the Academy. A study this month by USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism called “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair,” which looked at race, gender and age among film directors, revealed that the problem may be opportunity. Between 2007 and 2016 there was no percentage change in the number of female, Black or Asian directors making top movies, the study found.

The study examined the top-grossing 100 films each year from 2007 to 2016 — 1,000 films in total. Minorities of all genders directed less than 10 percent of these films, it says. Just 5.1 percent of the 1,114 directors were black or African American. Three percent were Asian or Asian-American. In each of these two groups, three directors were women. Only one Latina was identified as a director of the 1,000 films.

The nation’s top film schools often feed those directors’ chairs. While some schools say they’ve made progress, it’s unclear in other cases how student demographics are changing, or what strategies programs are pursuing to diversify their student bodies.

The nation’s top film program, the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California — which published the study — said it does not share information about students’ gender, race or ethnicity.

At the American Film Institute, one of the nation’s top film schools, 34 percent of fellows — their name for students — are non-white, which reflects the average minority enrollment in graduate programs overall, according to the National Center on Education Statistics. AFI did not respond to request for comment on whether the number of non-white fellows at the institute has increased over time. But they have started a directing workshop for women that offers “intensive training” in narrative filmmaking.

At New York University, another consistently-top rated film school, the undergraduate program achieved gender parity for the first time in 2016, Shonna Keogan, a public affairs officer for the arts program, told the NewsHour.

“Fifteen years ago, there were two guys to every female student,” Keogan wrote in an email. “The progress has been incremental and steady.” NYU could not provide a breakdown by race or ethnicity.

Beyond what’s happening at universities, April Reign, who coined the hashtag “OscarsSoWhite,” said the time was “long past due” for Hollywood executives to do their part in hiring from marginalized communities. Reign believes more opportunities are needed not only for actors and actresses of color, “but also those people behind the camera,” such as directors, editors and cinematographers.

“If the studio’s argument is ‘we want to work with people who are traditionally underrepresented but we can’t find them,’ well then go look for them,” she said. “Create an opportunity for them to come and apply to your program and then, you know, reap the benefits. They’re out there, they’re hungry, they’re talented.”

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