TV outpaces Hollywood on diversity
As Hollywood continues to be battered by a backlash to the lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations and in the film industry at large, it doesn't have to look far for inspiration. Just turn on the TV.
Where the movies have lagged, television has recently exploded with diversity across the dial. Now, the film industry will be playing catch-up to the small screen. Television is where some of the most talented people of color have turned for greater artistic freedom. It provides the chance to tell more varied stories that don't require capes or marketability in China.
Many previous Oscar nominees are already there.
Ava DuVernay is the director of last year's best picture-nominee, "Selma." Now she is at work on "Queen Sugar." It is a drama series for Oprah Winfrey's OWN. John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "12 Years a Slave," is in the second season of his acclaimed ABC series, "American Crime." Forest Whitaker, who won best actor for 2006's "The Last King of Scotland," is part of a "Roots" remake for A&E. Two-time Oscar nominee Viola Davis is on Shonda Rhimes' "How to Get Away With Murder" for ABC.
"TV cares about its audience," says Davis. In September, she became the first African-American to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama. "TV wants to cater to the demographics of what is America."
Television is a faster, more nimble medium than film, where movies regularly take years to make. But it also has some structural advantages. Power in Hollywood is still largely held by the six major studios and a handful of other large production companies. In television, there's a veritable ocean of opportunity, including cable and streaming networks with deep pockets and a willingness for riskier material.
Though the television landscape was less diverse just a few years ago, it's - for now - flush with the likes of Lee Daniels' "Empire," Aziz Ansari's "Master of None" and Jill Soloway's "Transparent."
To compete in an increasingly crowded media landscape, studios bankroll fewer films. Instead, they focus on blockbusters that can sell tickets around the globe. It's a strategy that has been largely working. A record $11.1 billion was spent at the box office in 2015. But it has put a stranglehold on distinct voices of any color, who find little daylight between hulking franchises.
As a producer, Whitaker twice found rejection at the studios before raising money independently for 2013's "Fruitvale Station."
"We're taking a leap on stories that maybe somebody else says they just don't get," Whitaker said when releasing "Dope."
New streaming platforms have provided avenues for some filmmakers. Spike Lee, who has said he won't attend the Oscars, found a home for his latest film, the gang violence takedown "Chi-Raq," with Amazon. The child soldier drama "Beasts of No Nation," which provided the much-praised but un-nominated performance by Idris Elba, came from Netflix.
"We must do a better job of cultivating and recognizing diversity," Chris Dodd, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, said. "The film community is better served when a wider array of voices is celebrated."
But in today's Hollywood, variety of any kind is hard to come by. Incremental change is often measured in the makeup of franchises.
Two of 2015's most popular films were "Furious 7" and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." They grossed more than $1 billion with casts that came closer to reflecting American society and moviegoers than blockbusters of the past. After years of white superheroes, Marvel has enlisted Ryan Coogler to direct its "Black Panther" movie.
But Darnel Hunt, head of UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American studies, cautions against viewing gestures of diversity as representations of deeper progress.
"I don't think most of the public is aware of what goes on behind the scenes and how exclusionary the business really is. Particularly if you see people of color on screen, which you do increasingly see on television," says Hunt. "But if you look behind the scenes, you don't see nearly as much diversity."
Hunt co-authors UCLA's annual Hollywood Diversity Report and year after year, the results have been unflattering. Though minorities make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, they receive only 17 percent of the lead roles in theatrical films. Hollywood executives are 94 percent white and almost entirely male. Though TV has made some strides in front of the camera, its boardrooms and writers' rooms (not to mention late-night TV hosts) remain largely white and male, too.
"We are light years away. The lack of nominations was, to me, almost a perfect reflection of what the industry looks like," says Hunt. "TV seems more open because they're making a lot more TV, so there are more opportunities for women and minorities. But not in the key decision-making positions."