Since 2015 the big name award shows have been under scrutiny for “whitewashing”, the Oscars have had the most publicised backlash in the past few years regarding the race and the lack of diversity of their nominees. Was their selection pure coincidence or is there something going? In modern times, race is the last thing that you would think to be a factor in such a thing but just how racially skewed are these award shows and exactly how did Hollywood get into this predicament?
In 2013 Steve McQueen took home the big award of the night at the Oscars, Best Picture for his critically acclaimed film 12 Years A Slave. His film was beautifully done, boasted a diverse cast and in the opinion of many was a worthy winner of the gong. Two years later in 2015, however, the Academy came under fire for its supposed whitewash of nominees. Many had a lot to say about who was nominated and most importantly who wasn’t nominated. In Hollywood getting snubbed is quite the career blow, especially if the film was deemed to be a firm contender. In both 2015 and 2016 all 20 of the nominees for Best Actor and Actress were white. This “trend” was heavily criticised and prompted the twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite to trend. Not only did it receive attention on social media, it also caused a lot of big name stars to speak out and boycott the show – Will and Jada Smith were strong voices against the whitewash.
However, it is not just award shows that have come under fire; whitewashing is a universal issue that has plagued the entertainment industry for years. In 2008, L’Oreal suffered major backlash as a result of photo shopping Beyonce to look more Caucasian. We can also look to film and TV castings to see that the issue also lies there. Marvel’s blockbuster Dr Strange suffered criticism when it cast Tilda Swinton in the role of the Ancient One, a character portrayed as Asian in the comics. Rightly so, many were confused about why Swinton was cast over someone who would have fitted the character description. Another example of this is Scarlet Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, again she did not fit the character’s physical description It is understandable that big film studios would want the biggest names attached to their production but should this be achieved at the consequence of their integrity?
2017 saw a change in the tide and has been dubbed the most diverse awards season in the past few years. After two years of a lack of diverse representation in the four main acting categories, the 2017 Academy Awards saw its most diverse line up. For the first time in history there was a black actor in every category, 2013 was the last time that this almost happened. Denzel Washington, Viola David, Ruth Negga, Naomi Harris, Octavia Spencer and Mahershala Ali were all recognised in their respective categories. The diversity was not limited to actors, the film of the awards season Moonlight was nominated 8 times as well as Fences and Hidden Figures receiving 4 and 3 nominations, respectively.
An important thing to note however is that while we seem to be making progress in terms of breaking down the exclusivity at the Oscars, and other award shows alike, with regards to race. There is still a mountain to climb when it comes to LGBTQ representation. Moonlight was a special film in terms of showing diversity in race and also shining a light on the LGBTQ community. The last LGBTQ film that gathered a lot of praise and did well was the Harvey Milk biopic Milk starring Sean Penn. Penn took home the coveted Best Actor for his portrayal of the first openly gay person to be elected to public office. In total it received 8 nominations.
The difficult thing about this problem is that it suggests that those nominated don’t deserve their nomination. Which undermines their hard work. But when you have had such a trend continue it would be silly to think that people wouldn’t stand up and speak about it – and rightly so. We live in a time where race should not hold you back from the jobs you want or the life you want to live. And in regular day-to-day life it doesn’t. But what makes Hollywood so different? Why is this still such an issue? Despite the “most diverse” Oscars yet in 2017, whitewashing is still a term that is thrown about. This year’s Emmy Awards came under fire for the exact same reason the Oscars did two years previous. The problem is very real and despite people coming forward to lament big time film studios, it sadly seems that change isn’t coming quick enough.
By Caitlin Young