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Racial scrutiny remains ahead of all-white Oscar ceremony

February 26, 2016 at 8:00 PM EST
For the second straight year, no actors or actresses of color have been nominated for an Academy Award, leading to heavy criticism and calls to boycott the ceremony. The Academy of Motion Pictures, which oversees the awards, aims to double its number of female and minority members by 2020, but some say the real fault lies with the people in charge of the industry. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The Academy Awards will be given out this Sunday. But instead of the nominees, much of the focus this year is on, as the hashtag on Twitter has it, Oscars so white, and Hollywood’s lack of diversity.

Jeffrey Brown has more.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard Pryor at the Academy Awards in 1977:

RICHARD PRYOR, Comedian: I’m here to explain why no black people will ever be nominated for anything.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Chris Rock 28 years later.

CHRIS ROCK, Comedian: We have four black nominees tonight. So, great. It’s kind of like the Def Oscar Jam tonight.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: In some ways, Hollywood’s lack of diversity is an old story, but as Rock prepares to host his second Oscar ceremony, and for a second straight year, no actors of color were nominated, the stakes and anger have risen, including calls for a boycott of the event.

JADA PINKETT SMITH, Actress: I will not be at the Academy Awards, and I won’t be watching.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Academy of Motion Pictures, the group that oversees and votes on nominations, announced new rules to develop a younger, more diverse Oscar voting pool, the aim, double the number of female and minority members by 2020.

But many see the problem as much deeper.

SPIKE LEE, Director: It goes further than the Academy Awards. It has to go back to the gatekeepers.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC News: Studios.

SPIKE LEE: Yes, the people who have the green-light vote.

IDRIS ELBA, Actor: Talent is everywhere, but opportunity isn’t. Talent can’t reach opportunity unaided.

JEFFREY BROWN: Idris Elba, whose performance in “Beasts of No Nation” was widely praised, recently spoke of roadblocks he faced early in his career.

IDRIS ELBA: I realized I could only play so many best friends or gang leaders. Right? I knew that I wasn’t going to land a leading role. I knew there wasn’t enough imagination, not yet, for the industry to be seeing me as a lead.

JEFFREY BROWN: In recent years, television has presented more diverse programming, hit shows like “Orange Is the New Black” and “Jane the Virgin.”

And just last week, ABC made Channing Dungey, who helped develop shows like “Black-ish,” the first African-American to head a network. But it was only last year that Viola Davis became the first black woman to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama series.

She spoke of the obstacles.

VIOLA DAVIS, Actress: You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.

JEFFREY BROWN: How host Chris Rock will address all of this is now part of the fun and seriousness of Sunday night’s ceremony.

CHRIS ROCK: Let’s do this.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we look at the situation and the potential way forward now with Darnell Hunt, professor of sociology at UCLA and co-author of an annual report on Hollywood diversity, Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which advocates for more inclusive representation of Latinos in film and TV, and Sharon Waxman, founder of The Wrap, a news site covering the entertainment and media industries.

And welcome to all three of you.

I want to start with you, Darnell Hunt.

And help us first briefly define the problem and what you see as its source.

DARNELL HUNT, University of California, Los Angeles: Well, what we’re dealing with is a disconnect between, on the one hand, the increasing diversity of American society — we’re almost 40 percent minority — on the other hand, the fact that, stubbornly, the industry just can’t seem to make diverse projects.

In our study, we find that, on every front, people of color and women are underrepresented, behind the camera, in front of the camera. And yet we also see, from audience consumption patterns, that people of color, diverse audiences, crave diverse content.

So we have a situation where the people who are running the industry, and largely white males, aren’t in a position to make the types of projects that people want. And that’s the fundamental issue. It’s trying to figure out how to bring more people in the room, how to get more voices and perspective into the process.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so Alex Nogales, tell us how it plays out. You work sometimes with the experiences of Latinos and others, what kind of roles they get or don’t get, what kind — what they run up against as writers or Directors.

ALEX NOGALES, National Hispanic Media Coalition: Well, they can’t even get in.

The opportunities are not there. As Darnell just said, the problem is that you have 95 percent whites in leadership positions at all of the studios, the six studios here in town. And you have a majority of them being males. So, they rose up in the ranks of this whole thing called film, and they have made their alliances, they have made their friendships, they have made their relationships.

And so when it’s time to call for a new product, that’s who they call in, other people that are like them, that are white, that are male, and so forth. And the reflection then doesn’t include us. The jobs are not there because the people at the very top are not making the decisions that are ones of inclusion.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Sharon Waxman, is that the industry you see, that you cover every day? Is it about who you know? Is it about overt racism or sexism? Is it all about money? What?

SHARON WAXMAN, The Wrap: Well, I think it’s worse than that because you have a culturally very liberal entertainment industry, famously so, in which people are politically very much to the left. You see that in some of the programming choices and the messages, whether it’s Norman Lear for so many years and the television that he wrote that heavily influenced American society in the ’70s, or whether you see that with “Will & Grace” or shows like — shows like that that push the needle forward on social issues all the time.

But it is true that the issue of decision-makers being primarily white and male, with some notable exceptions, has been the case. I do think that this is essentially a small community of people who come up together, who call on their friends. If you are in a studio job and you leave a studio job, you become a producer, and your buddy then calls you up and asks you for your latest pitches.

So it has to be more thoughtful, significant and proactive effort to change that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Darnell Hunt, as a sociologist, you are studying individuals within institutions. Right? And this is a primary example. Do you see successes? Do you see places where there has been progress made, potential models?

DARNELL HUNT: Yes, I think there are lots of models.

The successes, though, unfortunately, are the exceptions to the rule. Business as usual in the industry, as our report shows, our 2016 report shows, is more of the same. It’s under-representation for people of color and women.

ABC’s move, I think, was a very bold move, but it made business sense. This woman had been the executive vice president for drama development. And she was the person who’s responsible for a lot of those Shonda Rhimes shows that are doing really well on ABC, as well as some of their other prime-time dramas.

So, it just made sense for her to become head of that network because of the network she has and the connections she has with the creative community. And it’s forward-thinking. It’s looking at where America is going. And I think a lot of ABC’s programming kind of gestures toward that present and that future.

So, I think that other networks and studios need to get into this game as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alex Nogales, continue that forward thinking for us, if you would. When you go to the studio, what are you saying? What are you asking for? What’s the pitch?

ALEX NOGALES: In the year 2000-2001, the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition signed memorandums of understanding with ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX. And for us, that’s a model that we’re going to utilize with the six studios.

And the reason for that is because it’s working. It is working slowly, but it’s working.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does it say? Tell us specifically, what does that mean?

ALEX NOGALES: That they’re going to diversify their work force both in front and in back of camera. They’re going to give you — they’re going to give us the actual numbers of who is working in front and in back of camera, and that we are going to be partners in this enterprise of diversifying the work force.

It’s working on television slowly, but it’s working. Now we have to make it work as well in film.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Sharon Waxman, to the extent that this is an old issue, is it possible to tell yet how much of an impact all the most recent kind of anger and uproar has had or might have?

SHARON WAXMAN: Right.

So, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which governs the Oscars, has adopted very significant changes in the wake of this latest protest. They are going to try to double the number of minorities and women in the Academy voting membership by the year 2020, and they’re phasing out people who haven’t been active in the Academy — or in the industry — sorry — for the past 10 years.

I don’t know if that’s going to really make the change that they need. This really means they need to admit a lot of people of color and a lot of women over the next five years. You need to find those qualified people. People do want to see change, but there is no stakeholder with power within the industry that has the wherewithal to drive that change.

So, they always end up being kind of window dressing. So, I would be curious to see. I would be — hope, for Alex Nogales’ sake and for all of our sakes, that those agreements that he signed really do lead to substantive change.

Now, I do think that public shaming is not a bad way to do that, which is what has happened this year. But, ultimately, these are media companies that answer to their shareholders, so we can’t — we have to make an economic argument for that. And I think there is a strong economic argument for that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Darnell Hunt, just a brief last word. Are you hopeful as this point as we prepare to watch the Oscars?

DARNELL HUNT: Well, you know, I’m a cautious optimist. I think we have to keep applying the pressure.

There is no magic bullet. We have to approach this from every front. The economic argument is a strong one. Our study shows inconclusive — I mean, shows conclusively that, you know, diversity sells.

Audiences of color are craving that content, and shows that are diverse, on average, do better on ratings and movies do better at the box office. So, we just have to keep amassing the data. It’s there, and it’s only going to become more profound as time goes on, as the population becomes more diverse.

JEFFREY BROWN: Darnell Hunt, Alex Nogales, and Sharon Waxman, thank you, all three, very much.

DARNELL HUNT: Thank you.

ALEX NOGALES: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can find more of our coverage of this year’s films on our Art Beat page. That’s at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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