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“The Oscars prove there’s an appetite for diversity in film. So where is it?”

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Emily Reynolds
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The Oscars has been praised for its increasingly diverse nominations – but it’s not enough, argues Emily Reynolds

There’s been much fanfare around the so-called diversity of the Oscars this year. And, looking at both shortlists and eventual winners, it’s easy to see why.  

Female led film The Shape of Water won Best Picture, for example, in a category that also included Greta Gerwig’s musing on teenage girlhood, Lady Bird, moving gay love story Call Me By Your Name and biting racial satire Get Out. The latter two also won Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay respectively – so it’s easy to see why people might be celebrating.

But look closer at Hollywood, and things aren’t quite as diverse as they might seem.

In 2017, a study from the University of Southern California analysed 900 popular films and found that depictions of race, gender, disability and LGBT characters were still sorely lacking. Of the top 100 grossing films of 2016, for example, only 34 had a woman lead – and only 8 had a woman lead aged over 45. Three had a lead from an underrepresented racial group.

The study also found that 76% of the films had no speaking LGBT characters; 79% of those who did speak were white. 25 of the same top 100 films had no speaking black characters, 44 had no speaking Asian characters and 54 had no speaking Latino characters.

There aren’t just issues with representation, either – depictions themselves were often problematic to say the least. 

Women were far more likely to be wearing “sexy” clothing than men, and “teenage females (13-20) were just as likely to be depicted in sexually revealing clothing and with some nudity as young adult females (21-39)”; study authors also said that films “perpetuate the sexualisation of women from ‘other’ racial or ethnic groups, even as these female characters are least likely to be shown as parental figures”. 

This lack of representation was also shown up brilliantly by actor and playwright Dylan Marron in his web series Every Word Spoken By A Person of Color In…, editing popular films like Titanic, Harry Potter and Lord of The Rings to show how few speaking roles go to people of colour. Many are less than thirty seconds long; others have no speaking roles whatsoever. Those who do get speaking roles, in many cases, are starring as service workers or bystanders. 

And, this month, young activists in Brixton showed up the same thing, recreating movie posters with black leads to highlight just how white the film industry is. 

It’s not like the Oscars itself is perfect when it comes to issues of diversity, either. Remember #OscarsSoWhite? 

As film critic Guy Lodge pointed out on Twitter, The Shape of Water is the first Best Picture winner with a female lead for thirteen years – the last female-led film that won the award was 2004’s Million Dollar Baby

And when actress Frances McDormand asked all the female nominees to stand with her during her Best Actress acceptance speech, it was striking how few there really were. 

CNN writer Deena Zaru also points out that Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans are still almost totally absent from nomination longlists – only five Hispanic Americans and two Asian Americans have ever won an Oscar in one of the five major categories. 

According to the same 2017 University of Southern California study, only three percent of speaking roles in the last decade went to Hispanic Americans - despite the fact that Hispanic Americans are the largest minority group in the US, responsible for 21% of all movie tickets sold in the US in 2016. 

A BBC analysis earlier this month uncovered similar evidence that diversity pays.  It found that Oscar-nominated films with a woman lead were significantly more profitable than male-led counterparts – despite the fact that female-led films “usually have lower production budgets”. 

Every dollar invested in a female-led film earns back, on average, $2.12 (£1.53) – for male-led films, this was only $1.59 (£1.15). Hidden Figures – a film starring predominantly black women – earned its production budget 6.8 times over and Lady Bird 4.2 over. 

The BBC analysis also points out that in 2017, the top three highest grossing films all had female leads – Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman.

The recent success of Black Panther is also relevant here – the fifth biggest opening of all time, the film is now one of the ten highest-grossing films ever.  

So, what does this show? It shows that there’s an appetite for films that represent people. It shows that we want to see ourselves on screen – and when we do, we’re happy to pay for it. 

It’s great that the Oscars was slightly more diverse this year; it’s great that films like Call Me By Your NameLady Bird or Get Out are depicting characters in a complex, nuanced way – a way that transcends the kind of lip service ‘representation’ so many groups are used to having to reflect them on screen. 

Frances McDormand called out the idea that diversity was “trending” after her win for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: “we’re not going back,” she said.

“This whole idea of women trending? No. No trending. African Americans trending? No. No trending. It changes now.”

She’s right. We should never have had to prove that our stories were worth telling in the first place – but we have, both commercially and critically, hundreds of times over. There’s no excuse for the film industry to carry on ignoring underrepresented groups anymore – it’s time for our stories to finally be told. 

Image: Rex Features