Representation at the Oscars in 2017 has improved compared with past years, but Hollywood still remains overwhelmingly white and male, despite the fact that the majority of moviegoers are not white men.
With the 89th Academy Awards this Sunday, we gave our MTV Campus Ambassadors the opportunity to weigh in on the Oscars conversation. Do they feel represented in film? Do they wish studio executives knew more about their lives, the lives of their friends, and aspects of their own experience that they'd like to see on the big screen? In an MTV News roundtable, our Ambassadors discuss this year's nominees, how they can support filmmakers and actors of color on a campus level, and what work still needs to be done to become more inclusive.
Mariah Woods, Temple University
As a young child obsessed with movies, I often wondered, “Where are my people in this industry? Where are our stories being told?” This awards season has shown me that they can be told anywhere, in any way, and I am more excited for this year’s Oscars than I have ever been for any other before.
I feel blessed to live in a time where we can go to the movies and see the cracks beneath the surface of a black gay man’s hard exterior, as we did in Moonlight, and learn about such important women who were conveniently left out of the history books like we did in Hidden Figures. But I’m particularly rooting for Viola Davis and Fences to sweep the night this year. I have written about Fences’ impact on my life before, and Davis, the frontrunner in her category, is my favorite actress. No one is a more generous scene partner or a more dedicated, present performer than she is, and I believe she gave the best performance of any actor this year.
Overall, it's good to live in a time when depictions of average black people’s lives are finally being seen as extraordinary art. And these depictions make sense considering that a recent Nielsen report showed that, for one example, more than 79 percent of Black-ish's audience is not black. Giving black people the chance to tell stories — especially ones that don’t involve an extraordinary set of circumstances — not only reflects actual moviegoing audiences’ experiences, but it allows all audience members to see each other as people, rather than caricatures of people we cannot relate to.
I know that the film industry has a long way to go, and progress is not linear (see: the 2016 presidential election), so the representation evident this year may be a fluke. But it has been a long time coming. And it feels amazing.
Taylor Vidmar, Richland Community College
It’s great that the Oscars are starting to celebrate more films featuring people of color, like Hidden Figures and Moonlight, but we still have a long way to go considering the front-runner for best picture, La La Land, is hardly diverse (for reference, read: “The Unbearable Whiteness of La La Land” and “La La Land’s White Jazz Narrative”), and Asian and Latinx work is barely represented among this year’s nominees.
We all have a responsibility to do what we can to change this. More people should see movies written, directed, produced by, and starring people of color, and avoid movies that whitewash main characters and/or unnecessarily insert white saviors into stories about people of color (looking at you, The Great Wall). But we also have to address this issue in a more systematic way. On the campus level, for example, college film professors need to teach more diverse material in their classes — as do professors for every subject. Students have to read books by people of color in lit classes and learn about people of color in history classes. The unique experiences of people of color have to be told and celebrated so the next generation of filmmakers and artists can celebrate and memorialize them in their art.
Also, campus film festivals and/or art shows should feature art by students of color. If students don’t currently see this diversity on campus, they should petition school officials to support and feature artists of color in classes or events on campus (such as film festivals, etc.). Beyond campus, students can also support the art of people of color by backing emerging artists on YouTube and through fundraising sites like GoFundMe. A really great resource specifically for supporting filmmakers of color is Ava DuVernay’s Array!
Kamrin Baker, University of Nebraska-Omaha
You guys, I’m so pumped for the Oscars. Like Mariah said, seeing so many more black-centric films and creators recognized is so beautiful. In the last few months, I’ve learned so much about intersectional feminism and how important it is to support incredible women of color. Their stories are more important than ever — especially diverse, complicated, and detailed depictions of their stories — and I’m thrilled the film and entertainment industry is beginning to recognize that.
On the other hand, I’m kind of worried the Academy has nominated more artists of color just to shut us up. Since the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag (rightfully) went viral before last year’s show, we’ve seen a massive leap in black nominations — although, as Taylor said, we are still so far behind in Asian and Latinx representation. While I’d like to be optimistic and believe these nominations were based on merit and talent (in my book, they absolutely are), I can’t help but feel that the Academy wanted to avoid a scandal and may go back to their old, whitewashed ways in the coming years.
I believe the best thing we can do to ensure that doesn't happen is to support the work of writers, directors, actors, and producers of color, to cheer them on, and to know the damn difference between Fences and Hidden Figures.
Shaquan McDowell, Brandeis University
Before going into politics, I was hugely interested in film acting. I constantly sought auditions, but it was difficult to find roles because African-American parts just aren’t abundant. Even when they were available, the roles seemed to lack diversity: Typecasting was apparent. Though I now act on campus, it’s safe to say that, growing up, I felt underrepresented in film and media.
When you turn on a film and notice that a character looks like you, that their cultural experiences and background are likely similar to what you’ve encountered, you feel understood and heard in ways you haven’t previously experienced. There is nothing like seeing your narrative accurately depicted for the world to see. I remember sitting and watching Hidden Figures with my family in early January, and leaving the theater absolutely inspired for that very reason. I also remember when the women in my family went to see The Help together and felt a sense of empowerment exuding from them afterward (quick shout-out to the films that accurately depict black women — their endurance in serving as the backbone to America).
I applaud the efforts of the industry to become more inclusive of narratives of people of color, and I appreciate the surge in nominations recognizing black art. I hear the concern that this surge may just be a Band-Aid response to the #OscarsSoWhite scandal last year. Even if this is the case, I still believe that this moment should be celebrated — yet we should continue to keep the Academy accountable for continuing to value diversity.
These practices extend beyond just the Academy, however. Many of these issues are rooted in how society delegitimizes people of color more generally and dismisses the idea that they could excel at the art of acting or directing. We also have to empower young artists of color who want to enter the industry — on levels both local and mainstream — by telling them that they are capable and supporting them on all levels.
The work is not over, and I think the game plan should be as follows: 1. Continue to support films featuring people of color. 2. Continue to scrutinize the industry. 3. Continue to encourage artists of color; if we do so, then I truly believe that we’ll see a shift in the way things are done.
Peter Gonzalez, Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo
When I look at a film, it’s the interior character that I relate to, not the character’s exterior. For example, when I watched La La Land, I saw myself in and connected with both characters, because I am also a dreamer and worry that I will have to sacrifice my dream because it’s not conventional. Fences also resonated with me because, no matter the race of the main characters, I recognized things in them that I’ve seen in my own friends and family. I can see myself, my friends, and my family in the films that I watch based on the experiences characters have and their personalities — not just their exteriors.
That being said, I want to see movies follow the same lead as many television shows — like Supergirl and Riverdale — that have made great strides in portraying the stories of people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and other underrepresented groups as being normal and on the same playing field as more traditional narratives. These characters should be parts of the stories being told, not simply added in to fill a diversity quota. It would be great to see this diversity especially in bigger-budget movies, because those movies draw in audiences and help normalize the new representation onscreen.
Bizzy Emerson, University of Missouri
I think it’s so essential for me and other white moviegoers to recognize our white privilege. Most Oscar-nominated films over the past decade have been predominantly white, and the status that white, older, wealthy men have within the Academy is pretty disheartening. I think this year’s ceremony is a step in the right direction, but nominations only mean so much. It’ll be interesting to see who actually takes home the top acting prizes.
Representation at the Academy Awards is essential, now more than ever. Considering the current political climate, disregarding extremely talented people of color sends a particularly damaging message.
Justin Clay, Georgia State University
As someone who does feel represented in film, I think it’s important to acknowledge that so many people do not feel the same way. I am very excited that Moonlight — a film that focuses on black queer men — has been nominated, since these individuals are especially left out of the (still minimal) LGBTQ+ stories told in mainstream cinema. I think it is very important to highlight this narrative and, in doing so, show that people do not have to choose between feeling only that their race or their sexual orientation is represented. Queer people of color exist, and they deserve recognition for their efforts and contributions, both in media and in general.
Isabel Song, UC Berkeley
Like Taylor and Kamrin noted, while it’s great that the Oscars have become more aware of their lack of diversity, there’s still a long way to go to ensure that a wider range of minorities and POC are actually represented. I’m going to speak to Asian-American representation here, mostly because that’s something I do have very personal experience with. Asian-Americans are constantly cast as minor side characters, like the weird, geeky kid; the quiet person in the background; or the person who follows traditional Asian stereotypes to a T. The few times when Asian-Americans are represented, they aren’t cast to fill any role, but rather specifically Asian-American roles. These depictions seem to hit on the assumption that Asian-Americans are these “other” Americans, and distance us as a different people; they reinforce the idea that we don’t quite fit in, even though we’ve grown up immersed in American culture, in the same towns and schools as everyone else.
I’m also painfully aware of how these representations not only affect how others view Asians and Asian-Americans, but also how we view ourselves. I wrote about this recently when I realized I have internalized the lack of diversity in the popular books, TV shows, movies, etc., that I consumed growing up. I learned to always assume that the main protagonist (as well as any other characters) was white. I can’t imagine myself or people like me as the main character in any given narrative — a mindset that furthers the normalization of white dominance. And that’s ultimately the problem with the lack of diversity in media representation: It perpetuates the idea that white is the default, is “normal.”
The perpetual lack of diversity in Hollywood and media at-large are deeply rooted and will take many years and lots of hard work to reverse, but I’m glad that we have been able to build the social pressure to start making changes. It’s fantastic that the Oscars have been working toward better representation, but we also need to be careful to not let them off the hook. It’s too easy to do something, pat yourself on the back, and then forget about it, and we have to make sure that increasing diversity remains a priority not only for the Oscars and media but for our nation.