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Hollywood Has a Diversity Crisis, Not Just the Oscars

Variety Writer: Hollywood Has a Diversity Crisis, Not Just the Oscars

Lisa J. Ellwood
2/16/16

In a recent column, Variety writer Tim Gray says ongoing diversity failure is a reflection of the entire film industry, not just the Academy, and that people of color have had to have to bear these frustrations for too long.

“The 89-year-old motion picture academy is absorbing the brunt of the public disdain. But the fault lies not just in the star-making Oscars, many agreed, but in ourselves,” he says. “The Hollywood studio hierarchy remains an exclusive club chaired by white men and one white woman. The big talent agencies have almost no minority partners. And the media that cover it all – Variety included – employ only a few people of color.”

In this Jan. 14, 2016 file photo, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announces the Academy Awards nominations at the 88th Academy Awards nomination ceremony in Beverly Hills, Calif. The film academy is pledging to double the number of female and minority members by 2020, and will immediately diversify its leadership by adding three new seats to its board of governors. Isaacs announced the changes Friday, Jan. 22, following a weeklong storm of criticism and calls for an Oscar boycott after academy members nominated an all-white slate of actors for the second year in a row. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)

Native actor and director Morningstar Angeline generally agrees with Gray and Jada Pinkett Smith (who recently released a video criticizing the Non-diversity of the Oscars) that the persistent problem with the lack of diversity in Hollywood is bigger than the latest Oscars controversies.

See Related: Jada Pinkett Smith Video Ripping Oscars Goes Viral

“First, this conversation is very much overdue on a large scale but by no means is it a new dialogue,” said Angeline to ICTMN via email. “People of color have long been aware of the lack of representation of our individual and unique races and cultures, and have been participating in these discussions. However, the problem has always remained that most of our discussion does not have an audience or sympathizers other than ourselves.

“Secondly, The Academy does not acknowledge certain films for various reasons (there are plenty of articles regarding the regulations for films they nominate). Their main focus is on the “blockbuster” films which reign over the majority of theatres worldwide. With that said, that means they do not include many low budget, or independent films that are often some of the most compelling and unique films. In my opinion these films can include some of the most groundbreaking writing, acting, directing, etc. by filmmakers of all nationalities, genders, sexual orientations, etc.

“Lastly, I place the true importance on the lack of quality roles for people of color of all genders and sexual orientations. How can a person of color have an “Oscar worthy” performance when an “Oscar worthy” role does not exist for their race or gender? How can a person of color have an “Oscar worthy” performance when the “Oscar worthy” role is given to a white actor?

“The (filmmaking) system is broken. That includes all parts and agencies of said system such as the Oscars. Imagine the film industry is a huge moving organism, if one part fails, the system begins to fall apart. I firmly believe that right now, it’s not just one part, it’s almost all parts that are failing. This does not mean quality, compelling, and unique films are not being made. There is too much proof of such to say such things. The problem is the lack of opportunity and resources (such as roles) for people of color. This is why supporting independent film is so important and the filmmakers behind them."

That being said, it is very telling that the only significant moments of Native American “inclusion” at the Oscars have been Sacheen Littlefeather facing down a hostile audience to reject Marlon Brando’s Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather in 1974 on his behalf and the unexpected inclusion of Misty Upham in last year’s ‘In Memoriam’ acknowledgement of actors who walked on.

In an ICTMN column published after last year’s Oscar nominations controversy, Sonny Skyhawk, who will be attending this year’s ceremony, questioned why is it that we never see any Native Americans at the Academy Awards.

“Our Native people were the first to be photographed and utilized by Thomas Edison, in 1898, as he was perfecting his invention of the Kinetoscope. Fast forward to the 21st century; that invention has evolved and has now become the film and digital television camera of today,” he said. “So, 117 years later, why is it that everyone BUT the Native people of America are being represented or included in that medium?”

His conclusion was in keeping with Angeline’s analysis and the broader points raised by Pinkett Smith and Gray.

“The short answer is as elusive as the question. The reality is that if no scripts or films are made that include roles for Native people, roles that call for extraordinary acting chops, then we are excluded from the opportunity to participate in the yearly considerations for Golden Globe Awards, Sag Awards, and Oscars,” he said.

“A longer answer, and one that puts the onus on us as creative people, performers, and investors, is that if we really want to participate in the awards process, we have to write, produce, finance and distribute our own films judged to be of quality by the filmmaking world. Although all of that is within our ability, we have yet – with some exceptions – to reach the point of taking the investment risk associated with the business end of it. Until we do, we will continue to wonder why, after 117 years, we are not at the award consideration table.”

The necessity of independent Turtle Island film production and support for it is not lost on Nakoda First Nations Lawyer and Campaigner Rachel Ann Snow.

“Hollywood continues to glorify manifest destiny movies [like this year’s big Oscars contender, Golden Globes winner The Revenant] while portraying the Original People as savages. This is to assuage the slanted history of the America,” she told ICTMN via email. “While Americans are busy looking for human rights issues in other countries, they can forget that their own country was built on bloodshed, genocide, and land theft. Hollywood's movies play a continuous role in marketing this fallacy.”

As a producer, Skyhawk has decades of experience navigating the corridors of power in Hollywood and working his way around their gatekeepers. Connections, good scripts, investors who have faith in them, Native talent, and Native-owned and run speciality streaming services like NativeFlix that provide Native Americans with a platform to tell our stories our way aside, for him there is one certainty about NDNs reaching the seemingly unattainable heights of the film industry, including the Oscars:

“There has never been a Native film that has lost money.You can take that to the bank, as they say.”

Follow ICTMN Correspondent Lisa J. Ellwood on Twitter at www.twitter.com/IconicImagery

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