The awards race's grey zone
One year after #OscarsSoWhite, a surge of heavily marketed, critically acclaimed, diversity-forward films are dominating the marketplace. Do they reflect a sea change in the industry, or the illusion of progress? Barry Hertz reports on the burdens and expectations of this year's best picture hopefuls
You know Moonlight even if you haven't stepped inside a movie theatre in months. Ever since Barry Jenkins's intimate drama about one black man's coming of age premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, it has dominated the cultural conversation. Walk a block in any major city and you'll encounter giant bus ads touting its brilliance. Read any film critic's year-end Top 10 list and you'll find it near the top (Metacritic has the film topping 52 lists). Ask any industry insider and they will tell you Moonlight is the film to beat at this year's Academy Awards.
Which is all quite a radical shift from this time last year, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominations for the 2016 Oscars, and exactly zero non-white performers were nominated in the acting categories. For the second year in a row. In an instant, the social-media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite became easy shorthand for the industry, with the Oscars themselves cast as, in Chris Rock's words, "the White People's Choice Awards."
But Moonlight, and a handful of other films, might represent a long-overdue turnaround. In the last quarter of 2016 – what is traditionally known as awards season, when studios release their prestige pictures – there has been a notable surge of heavily marketed, critically acclaimed, diversity-forward films dominating the marketplace: Moonlight, certainly, but also the historical drama Hidden Figures; the interracial drama Loving; the Barack Obama biopic Barry; two monumental documentaries from Ava DuVernay (13th) and Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro); the tearjerker Lion starring Dev Patel; and the powerful Fences, directed by and starring Denzel Washington.
All promise to be strong presences at this year's Academy Awards – and all offer the hope of a sea change in the industry, an acknowledgment that Hollywood is finally waking up to the need for diverse voices, both in front of and behind the camera.
Or is it the mere illusion of a sea change?
The industry has been down this road before, after all. In 2002, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry became the first black performers to win both top acting Oscars in the same year (for, respectively, Training Day and Monster's Ball). Five years later, seven performers of colour dominated the 2006 Academy Awards' acting categories: Will Smith, Djimon Hounsou, Eddie Murphy, Rinko Kikuchi, Adriana Barraza and eventual winners Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson. But instead of those moments leading to permanent change, the industry fell back on whatever promises those recognitions may have implied.
"When Denzel and Berry won, the industry said, 'Well, that'll do for the next 20 years! Good job, everyone, pack it up!'" jokes Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies and an expert on diversity in the film business. It's a good line, but there are real tears mixed with the humour. While Hollywood considers itself a bastion of liberal values and progressive politics, it has consistently proven loath to highlight diverse performers and filmmakers, and in recent years has even lost what little progress had been made. (Last February, Hunt released a study that found that film jobs still go to "overwhelmingly white male performers and filmmakers," with minorities losing ground in acting, writing, directing and producing jobs since his previous study came out in 2015.)
Is Moonlight, then, and its fellow crop of Oscar favourites – each worthy in their own way, each carrying unfair burdens and expectations – part of a deliberate reaction to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, or a simple matter of good timing bereft of any meaningful industry change?
"In the case of Loving, it certainly isn't a reaction – the movie's been in the works for four years, and that's just the kind of gestation period it takes for features," says Peter Saraf, one of the drama's producers. "But we are seeing more films that are starting to engage on issues that have been ignored for a while."
Cameron Bailey, artistic director for the Toronto International Film Festival, agrees, though adds that there's another factor to consider. "What we're seeing is a reaction to the establishment that elevates movies to the public consciousness. The companies that sell and buy movies, the exhibitors, the critics – all those areas are probably paying more attention and are more conscious of trying to address diversity than a year or two ago," says Bailey, whose festival this past fall hosted premieres of Moonlight, Loving, I Am Not Your Negro and Lion, as well as a sneak peek of Hidden Figures. "It all makes it impossible to ignore the great work coming from African-American or Asian American or Latin American artists."
This cultural elevation, Bailey says, can be framed as an evolving democratization of just how movies get valued. "It used to be critics telling audiences what was great and what they had to see. And it still is, but it's also Twitter and Facebook now, and Black Twitter has also been incredibly vocal and increasingly influential," he says, referring to the loosely defined network of social-media users focused on interests to the black community, from politics to the arts. "Look at the reaction on Black Twitter to, say, the new Black Panther movie being developed by Disney. Every time there's a casting announcement, Twitter freaks out! That's great, but what it tells you is that people who make movies and green-light them are finally paying attention to social media – and if they want to make money, they follow that interest."
"We talk about the industry as if it's a monolith, and of course, at the end of the day, it isn't – all those people sitting in those rooms making decisions are ultimately paying lip service to the notion that they want to get their product to an audience," says Nina Shaw, a lawyer and industry power player who represents some of the top black artists working in Hollywood today, including DuVernay and musician John Legend. "So when you see something you like, you tweet about it, and use all your social-media outlets to encourage other people to do the same. And I'm telling you, the folks on this side of town are looking at those things and using them as indicators as to what audiences want to see."
In turn, certain films are bound to get highlighted by savvy studios eager to prove themselves part of the evolving cultural conversation. Which is how you find Paramount buying a huge four-page ad for Fences in The New York Times, or why upstart distributor A24 places giant placards touting the critical merits of Moonlight in certain multiplex lobbies.
"There is now an extra magnifying glass on these films, and rightly so, because there wasn't enough attention before," says Aaron L. Gilbert, CEO of Vancouver's Bron Studios, which helped produce Fences and Nate Parker's slave-revolt drama The Birth of a Nation. "With Birth, it was in the works well before the noisiness of last year's Oscars, but we were a happy benefit of that noise." (For a time, that is – The Birth of a Nation has all but dropped off the Oscar radar, due to director Parker's ugly legal history and a chillier-than-anticipated critical reception.)
Yet it is discomfiting to realize that all that noise echoing from last year's Oscars outrage might still not be enough to wake the industry from its whiter-than-white slumber. "This might be a banner year, but step backward – Hollywood is out of step, particularly behind the camera, with the fact that we're a very diverse nation now, a diverse market," says UCLA's Hunt, whose 2016 study found that although minorities account for almost 38 per cent of the U.S. population, they were underrepresented by a factor of nearly 3:1 among lead film roles. "Hollywood is going to have to adjust in some way. Television is a classic example. Just in the past couple of years, there have been huge steps forward in front of the camera – it looks more like America now. Film, not so much. … The white men making decisions on what's considered viable, what they're going to bet on, all too often they've moved in comfortable directions for them, directions that don't reflect where America is today."
Which is all the more puzzling, given how money is literally being left on the table. Hollywood is a business – so why would it not be producing films engineered to appeal to the widest audience as possible?
"I'm not sure what their interest is if it's not the bottom line," says editor and activist April Reign, who coined the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter hashtag in 2015. "It speaks to a larger issue: who green-lights the films and who makes the decisions."
Perhaps this is where the problem ultimately lies: The studio executives and the money men who decide what reaches the screen cannot see beyond their own self-interested perspectives and privileges.
"If you're walking into a room and trying to sell someone something that doesn't personally resonate because it's not in their bank of experience, it's harder," Shaw says. "It's probably a controversial thing to say, but the established community in my business is not historically and even now sensitive to the notion that they can tell every single story as well as the people who've actually lived those stories. I meet lots of men who think they can tell every single story just as well as everyone else. And you know what? That's just not true."
Hunt adds, "Because the industry is so out of whack with where the market is, there's a conflicting interest because the decision-makers are making decisions with their own interest. That's the impasse we're in."
The path forward is more easily mapped than travelled, though at least the necessary conversations are taking place. In February, Reign published a 10-point plan of actionable industry steps in The Guardian (including proactively mentoring unsung talent). This past June, the Academy made an unprecedented push to diversify its membership, adding 683 new voters skewed toward the global and independent film worlds. (Though Reign points out that the 7,000-member Academy is still overwhelmingly white and old.) And last month, the British Academy of Film and Television Awards announced that, beginning in 2019, films must show effort to improve diversity "in onscreen characters and themes, senior roles and crew, industry training and career progression, and audience access and appeal to underrepresented audiences" to be eligible for two of the biggest BAFTA categories.
Yet the core problem, as almost everyone acknowledges, is ensuring that no momentum is lost come next year's awards season – that the gates, as they are, remain open.
"I think those of us who have been in the business for a while, and are in positions of privilege, we need to make sure we're all offering opportunities to people who are looking to bring other kinds of stories into the tent," Saraf says, "people who don't just come out of the top film schools, who don't just come from backgrounds where they can afford to take an unpaid internship. We need to open the doors, and it's incumbent upon us in the business to do that in whatever way we can."
And even if Moonlight and Fences and Loving and all of 2016's other diversity-forward films turn up on the ballot when the Oscar nominations are revealed Jan. 24, their presumptive success is only a fraction of the ultimate victory.
"#OscarsSoWhite was never a black-versus-white thing, never a race-only thing," Reign says. "It is about all the communities that are traditionally underrepresented in entertainment. It looks like a step forward for films about the black experience this year, but we're also taking a step backwards on films about, say, the Asian-American experience. We have movies like The Great Wall with Matt Damon as a white saviour. We have Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange. We have Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell.
"This doesn't mean that #OscarsSoWhite is suddenly no longer relevant … There is much work to be done."