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How to turn the #OscarsSoWhite diversity conversation into action

Written By | Feb 20, 2016

LOS ANGELES, February 21, 2016 — It’s a week before the Academy Awards show, and the #OscarsSoWhite boil over seems to have simmered. But the heat generated still hovers like smog over the February 28 telecast.

Despite the Academy’s sweeping rule changes to encourage diversity, and the scramble to install black presenters along with black host Chris Rock, #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign told the that there are still calls for planned protests and “counter-programming”.

So what happens after February 28, when there is nothing to protest?

From green light to post production, the average film is two or more years in the making; so will 2016 actually see a move toward more diversity in the nominations, or will we just see #OscarsSoWhite resurface?

Many in entertainment have weighed in on the subject, some agreeing that #OscarsSoWhite is a problem. However, the larger point being made is that the glaring focus on the Academy and its membership is the wrong one.

Significant change needs to happen at the front-end, before anything of consequence will occur at the back-end.

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Ralph Winter, producer of the original X-Men trilogy and executive producer of “The Giver” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny”, is a member of the Academy, and as a white male in his 60s, fits into the current demographic that the Academy is attempting to change.

Despite protests from other Academy members regarding the rule changes, he sees no threat in them.

“The intention was to weed out people who literally are out of touch. But all you hear about are people are saying, ‘You can’t do that, I’m a lifelong member, I did something significant to get here.’ It’s like, calm down,” he said.

Winter does recognize that the arenas where the stories are launched is not geared toward diversity, particularly in the makeup of the people who green light the films.

“Hollywood is probably the last bastion that’s public and visible. You can look at the executive ranks: how many African-Americans, how many Hispanics, how many women run those companies, and not men.”

Winter agrees that change needs to occur from the top down, and likes the idea Spike Lee floated in a recent interview.

“Spike Lee’s idea is the same thing that happened in the National Football League: that you have to interview—not hire—but you have to interview, and a certain percentage of your candidates have to be people of color. Then pick the best candidate. You don’t have to choose a person of color, just be sure they are a part of the interview process. As a result of that we have more African-American coaches, we have some women coaches now in the NFL. So that’s not a bad idea to sort of legislate that. At least, sort of like in an academic institution, push a little harder to be sure that diversity gets its attention “

With the current state of academia, the industry may find that such social engineering could backfire in the long run. Students at University of Missouri (Mizzou) and other Ivy-League colleges have received the benefits of diversity legislation, but are now crying about safe spaces and wanting to re-segregrate because efforts toward desegregation have only led to more so-called racism.

Winter rightfully points out that in an industry where money is always on the line, the focus is hiring the best for the job, not necessarily trying out racial litmus tests.

“When you’re making a movie and hiring the crew, you hire the best people for the job, based on who’s available, who’s affordable, all that. When it gets to casting, that gets down to the stories that are being greenlit, the stories that are being made.”

Yet, the movies with diversity potential that seem to get greenlit involve the black man’s suffering, whether in slavery, civil rights, or modern day. From “12 Years A Slave” to Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation”, this year’s Sundance darling and recent Fox Searchlight acquisition, it seems as though the stories that get the raves and the dollars involve slavery or abuse (see “Precious” or “The Color Purple”).

Justin Simien, writer-director of “Dear White People” told the Hollywood Reporter,

“There is an obsession with black tragedy. If you see a black movie, it’s typically historical, and it tends to deal with our pain. And listen, there have been some excellent films made in that vein, and there are some painful parts of black history that should be explored, but it is kind of weird that only those films bubble up to the surface. It’s people who are enduring these horrible tragedies, or they’re saintlike[…] You know what that says, very subtly? It says that we’re not human. Because human beings are multifaceted.”

So how can the industry encourage and fund stories that convey the multifaceted lives of blacks in the way that the multifaceted lives of non-blacks is shown? Why does a story like “The Hundred Foot Journey” or “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” get prominent reviews and huge marketing campaigns, but stories like, “Beyond the Lights”, “Something New”, and “Love and Basketball” get scant attention?

“Part of it is kind of looking at life the way we see it, and making sure you see people who look like you, and talk like you, and talk like the audience you want to get to,” Winter said.

Aside from comedy, where Blacks dominate and compete equally with non-Blacks, how do you tap into the audience that will drive the dollars? Will socially engineering the movies actually work? Doubtful, and Winter agrees.

“I think that can be elitist at times and not well thought out. Because you get obsessed with the box office and you stunt cast every role because that will sell in Germany, and that will sell in Switzerland, and sometimes those movies end up looking like that; they look like they were cast by the marketing campaign.”

Ride Along 2 is touting a worldwide box office of $111 million with black director Tim Storey at the helm, and black actors and producers Kevin Hart and Ice Cube dominating the screen time. Aside from bankable non-white stars like Kevin Hart and Ken Jeong, the film plays to story and laughs, not marketing or social engineering.

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But Ride Along 2 is a popcorn movie, and not what is typically seen as Oscar-bait. Perhaps along with green-lighting more human stories about blacks, the perspective on what is “Oscar-worthy” also needs to change. That is where altering the makeup of the Academy membership could make a difference; but we may not see this for quite some time.

“It’s how the process works, but it’s basically working only in one flavor, Winter concluded. “So how do we vary that? How do we mix that up so that we’re paying attention to everybody? How do we make the story look like what we see in our neighborhoods and our communities?”

Increasing the number of storytellers is one solution, and seems to be working in television, where producers and showrunners Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story”, “Glee”) and Shonda Rhimes (“Scandal”, “How To Get Away With Murder”) dominate the landscape.

An even bigger change should occur in the typical conceptions of marketing, finance, and promotion, so that these stories not only get to the screen, but also don’t get ignored once they make it there. If you tap into the audience, everyday black stories can translate to green. It is time for the power brokers in the industry to recognize this.

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Jennifer Oliver OConnell

Jennifer Oliver OConnell offers witty, insightful, and direct opinion, analysis and musings on local and national politics and popular culture, with occasional detours into reinvention, food, and Yoga. Jennifer also teaches Yoga, and coaches clients on careers and reinvention. You can keep up with what's in Jennifer's orbit through her As the Girl Turns website.