Oscars diversity deficit: Why the awards show is white and TV is in colour

U.S. congressman Tony Cárdenas adds his voice to the growing chorus of complaints over the Oscars' diversity deficit, while TV proves to be friendlier to a greater variety of faces.

U.S. congressman Tony Cárdenas is the latest to accuse the academy of failing to reflect society

As the Oscars face criticism for their lack of diversity, CBC's Eli Glasner finds out why TV is better than movies at representing multi-ethnic stories.

8 years ago
Duration 2:26
As the Oscars face criticism for their lack of diversity, CBC's Eli Glasner finds out why TV is better than movies at representing multiethnic stories.

Despite widespread acclaim for the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma, starring British breakout star David Oyelowo, critics slammed this year's Oscar nominations for a startling lack of diversity.

While the civil rights drama received nods for best picture and best song, it was shut out of the acting and directing categories.

In fact, when the 2015 Oscar nominations were announced back in January, none of the 20 nominees in the acting categories were black, Asian or Latino — a fact that ignited a furious online discussion and saw the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite trend on Twitter

Can't see the tweet? See it here.

Now, as the broadcast date draws near this Sunday, a U.S. congressman is adding his voice to the growing chorus of outrage.

Scathing letter to the Academy

Tony Cárdenas, a Latino politician representing the San Fernando Valley just north of Hollywood, wrote a scathing open letter Tuesday to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences slamming its "unfortunate" selection of Oscar nominees.

"[W]hile the issue of diversity in the entertainment industry is a much deeper problem without an easy solution," wrote​Cárdenas, "it is unfortunate to see such a revered American institution fail to fully reflect our nation."

Stephan James, a Toronto-born actor who performs in Selma, echoes these sentiments, calling the nominations "disappointing."

"A little disappointing I must say, disappointing to know firsthand seeing the work David Oyelowo put in."

He also says it's time for the Academy to evolve.

"When you look at an actor like myself: a 21 year old dude," James told CBC, "you kind of wish there was someone in the Academy like you, someone who can reflect you."

Despite some recent efforts to diversify the Academy, and the appointment of its first-ever black president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the roughly 6,000 voting members are still 93 per cent white, according to a recent survey.

Lupita Nyong'o was the first Kenyan and first Mexican actress to win an Academy Award for her role in 12 Years a Slave. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters )
Deanna Wong, past executive director of Toronto's Reel Asian film festival, points to the Oscars' checker-board past. 

"Every once in a while there's hope," Wong said in an interview with CBC.

"Last year there was hope after 12 Years a Slave and then what happened this year? It just reverted to the same old thing and I just feel that change is taking place at such a slow pace it feels like nothing is actually going to change in Hollywood."

Small screen, big changes

Despite the allegations of white-washed movie screens, television appears to offer the most fertile ground for multi-ethnic stories and characters.

Filmmaker Clement Virgo attends The Book Of Negroes screening at The Paley Center for Media on Dec. 16, 2014 in New York City. (Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)
Clement Virgo, director of the acclaimed mini-series The Book of Negroes, based on the bestselling novel by Lawrence Hill, said he tried for two years to raise the money to make the book into a movie, but he and fellow producers were told that the subject matter was too "risky" for film.

"[T]hey need to sell these [stories] around the world," Virgo explained, "and there is a sense, perhaps, a lot of people of colour can't sell films around the world." 

Instead, the producers turned to TV and picked up CBC and BET as their North American broadcasters. 

Not surprisingly, Virgo sees diversity flourishing on TV more than film. 

"I think TV shows are doing a much better job because I think the word is getting out through the gatekeepers that the audience is diverse," said Virgo. "There's a lot of people of colour who are watching TV and there's a sense they want to see themselves reflected back from the screen."

Virgo points to shows like Empire, Fresh off the Boat and Blackish as evidence of the positive changes on the small screen.

Still, for some, there is hope that Hollywood will embrace change. Acclaimed film producer Stephanie Allain was the recipient of the Legacy Award at this year's African American Film Critics Awards for her work on such films as Hustle and Flow and Dear White People

Why TV is better at diversity

8 years ago
Duration 0:58
Acclaimed film producer Stephanie Allain tells CBC why television does a better job and representing women and people of colour.

Can't see the video? Watch Stephanie Allain's clip here.

"The Academy has done an incredible job in the last few years in terms of inviting in members of colour," Allain told CBC. "A lot of my friends are in. It's happening."

When it comes to the Oscars, there's also a financial motive for the Academy to reflect a wider audience.

Recent number show that ratings for the awards show broadcast dip when there are few or no black nominees, since those audiences don't tune in to watch.

To offset that, this year's Oscars producers have invited a range of presenters to take part, including David Oyelowo, Viola Davis, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Idris Elba, Octavia Spencer, Lupita Nyong’o, and Oprah Winfrey.

The 87th Academy Awards will be given out at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Calif. on Sunday,  beginning at 8:30p.m. ET with the red carpet starting at 7 p.m.ET.

CBC arts reporters/producers are on the ground in Hollywood and will be live blogging from the parties, the red carpet and behind the scenes starting Saturday night. Watch for full coverage, including photo galleries and all the winners, here on CBCNews.ca/arts.

CBC's Eli Glasner explores why TV is better than  movies at representing multi-ethnic stories in the video above, titled "Why the Oscars are white and TV is in colour".


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