Oscar nominations show greater diversity, but no triumph of inclusion

Seven of the 20 Oscar acting nominees are people of colour, while a movie about a young black man grappling with his identity and sexuality is a top contender. But is this year's batch of nominations a Hollywood triumph of inclusivity? Not so fast.

'I'm hoping that this is not an aberration,' says co-author of diversity study

Alex Hibbert, left, and Mahershala Ali appear in a scene from Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins. (Elevation Pictures)

Seven of the 20 Oscar acting nominees are people of colour, and Moonlight, a movie about a young black man grappling with his identity and sexuality, is one of this year's top contenders. But is this truly a Hollywood triumph of inclusivity?

Not so fast. 

While the latest class vying for Oscar glory is "a step in the right direction," Darnell Hunt, co-author of the Hollywood Diversity Report, is holding his breath.

"I'm hoping that this is not an aberration, that this trend will continue," the sociology professor and director of UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies told CBC News on Tuesday.

When Halle Berry (Monster's Ball) and Denzel Washington (Training Day) were the two lead actor Oscar winners in 2002, it was heralded as a watershed moment for diversity.

Hollywood's pace of change overall "is very glacial," Hunt said.

Indo-British actor Dev Patel, star of the film Lion, is one of this year's Oscar acting nominees. (Mark Rogers/The Weinstein Company/Associated Press)

Real change?

In the past few years, a spotlight has focused on the largely older, white and straight boys' club that rules Hollywood. The latest nominations for the Oscars — arguably the world's most prominent movie awards — are the first since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences started a high-profile diversity revamp championed by its first-ever black president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who oversaw a significant and more inclusive boost to the group's membership.

The academy's multiple acknowledgements of MoonlightFencesHidden Figures and Lion — films that tell stories specifically about people of colour — show progress. Seven actors of colour are among the nominees, along with a black editor and cinematographer and several black documentary makers.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of Broadway hit Hamilton, is one of the few Latin-American Oscar nominees. He's up for his song How Far I'll Go, from the animated film Moana. (Evan Agostini/Associated Press)

"I love the American film industry, and to see it this year, I feel, really reflect the world that we all live and work in, it gives me hope," Moonlight writer-director Barry Jenkins told The Associated Press. 

"There's a lot of work being done to make this year not be an anomaly," he added.  

But looking a bit deeper, other significant groups are underrepresented, including Latinos and those of Asian heritage. 

Female filmmakers remain a distinct minority, completely missing, for instance, from the best director category. (In the 89-year history of the Oscars, only four female filmmakers have been nominated, with Kathryn Bigelow the sole winner for The Hurt Locker). 

Hollywood's disconnect

Many of the films nominated have been in the development pipe for years, some well before #OscarsSoWhite became a rallying pop culture cry two years back.

All this just reflects the intrinsic makeup of Hollywood in general, which has "a woeful under-representation" of women and people of colour both in front of and behind the camera, said Hunt, whose next diversity report is slated for release in February. 

The North American movie industry today struggles with a significant disconnect, he explained. 

"What we've found now, four years running, is that films that roughly look like America in terms of diversity — that is to say about 40 per cent diverse on average — do the best," Hunt said, name-checking the colossally successful Fast and the Furious films as an example. The movies highlight a multi-ethnic cast and have mostly been directed by Asian-American and black filmmakers.

The Fast and the Furious movie franchise is an international blockbuster, led by its multi-ethnic cast. Michelle Rodriguez (from left, Vin Diesel, Chris Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel and Tyrese Gibson appear in Furious 7. (Universal Pictures)

However, while more diverse movies are what the market is calling for, the vast majority of those approving and creating movies (from studio executives to producers to filmmakers to talent agents) aren't diverse themselves and "produce the type of projects they're comfortable with making, projects that resonate with their own experiences," Hunt said.

Comparatively, television and streaming platforms are hosting a boom of countless projects and narratives, including those exploring minority, LGBT and female perspectives. Business as usual comes at Hollywood's own peril, said Hunt.

"The industry cannot continue to ignore diverse audiences, because diverse audiences are becoming its core audience now."

Movies shape how we see the world

Hollywood's influence permeates deeply into the culture, and "this is much bigger than the Oscars," according to Canadian movie reviewer and film writer Radheyan Simonpilla.

"Movies and television shape the way we see the world, so when the world we're seeing is all white, where do we think [people of colour] fit in?"

Movies and television shape the way we see the world, so when the world we're seeing is all white, where do we think [people of colour] fit in?- Radheyan   Simonpilla . movie reviewer and film writer

When the vast majority of movies offer the perspective of just a slice of the population, it leads to "disenfranchisement that leads to people feeling like, 'This is that world and we don't belong there," he said.

These conversations about under-represented groups and supporting a diverse filmmaking community must continue, lest we get complacent, said Canadian director, screenwriter and producer Albert Shin.

"Because if we rest on our laurels … I think it's very easy to sort of revert back to muscle memory." 

A movie like Moonlight, he said, is truly a shining example, because it's "such an important film, but it's also such a well-made film. It's nice to see quality and substance can really actually rise to the top."

At home, the tide is turning as well, he said, citing Johnny Ma's debut drama Old Stone — which won best Canadian first feature at last fall's Toronto International Film Festival — as a domestic example.

"A country like Canada should sort of be at the forefront of something like this and not following the lead. I think this is something that Canada could lead in."