African American Oscars triumph masking real diversity woes

Veronique DUPONT
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"Moonlight" director Barry Jenkins says he's excited to adapt "The Underground Railroad" for the screen

The triumph of black artists at the Oscars was seen as a signal that predominantly white Hollywood was making a serious effort to get a grip on its diversity problem.

Yet scratch the surface and it is apparent that the battle has barely begun in an industry where Asians, Latinos and other minorities, not to mention women, remain sorely underrepresented on set -- and in studio boardrooms.

After the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag caught on in 2016 -- the second straight year when no ethnic minority actors were nominated -- Barry Jenkins's coming-of-age best picture "Moonlight" struck a chord last Sunday as a moving look at contemporary African-American life.

There were six nods for black actors overall, as well as three documentary nominees telling African-American stories -- including Ezra Edelman's winning "O.J.: Made in America" -- and a screenplay win for Jenkins and his writing partner Tarell McCraney.

But critics have pointed out that race is not simply a black-and-white issue.

Under growing pressure, the Academy has embarked on reforms in recent years to diversify the mix of its members, who may have become "more aware" of bias, according to Darnell Hunt, the professor in charge of UCLA's annual Hollywood Diversity Report.

"But that's not necessarily a sign that the industry has changed, or that there's more diversity in the films being made. Studios are still (managed) by white men," he told AFP.

- Exclusion -

The latest edition of the study, published last month, notes that "despite the Academy Award nominations, the exclusion of people of color and women from Hollywood remains a concern."

Minorities represent 40 percent of the US population but only 13.6 percent of actors and 10 percent of filmmakers.

There was just one non-white, non-black acting nomination last Sunday -- for British-Indian Dev Patel -- while Syrian documentary shorts "The White Helmets" and "Watani: My Homeland" and Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's "The Salesman" were left to represent the entirety of Middle Eastern filmmaking.

It's not just an Oscars issue: Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans are the most woefully under-represented across the industry, while Middle Eastern actors find themselves typecast as terrorists.

Discrimination against women is arguably a larger issue, with only 29 percent of lead roles being female and, worse still, just 7.7 percent of productions directed by women according to the UCLA report, which analyzed movies and TV released in 2015.

At the root of the problem, say campaigners, is the overwhelming homogeneity in boardrooms and also in Hollywood's many casting agencies, which place the talent.

If you have a bunch of white man deciding what gets made, contends Hunt, they will inevitably green-light projects in their wheelhouse -- action, sci-fi and superhero movies populated and made by people who look like them.

The doom and gloom is in part mitigated, however, by baby steps towards a more inclusive future.

- Last resort -

Ryan Coogler, the 30-year-old rising African American star who directed "Creed," is currently shooting "Black Panther," a Marvel tentpole centered on a black superhero.

Meanwhile Ava DuVernay, acclaimed for the feature "Selma" and Oscar nominated for the documentary "13th," has become the first African-American to make a film with a budget of more than $100 million with the upcoming fantasy adventure "A Wrinkle in Time."

Skeptics point out that white, male studio bosses are hardly clamoring to fall on their swords in the name of diversity.

But Sundance Institute director Keri Putnam says the solution lies not in executives vacating their seats, but in "inviting more people around the table."

Josh Welsh, who heads Film Independent, the organizer of the annual Spirit Awards honoring indie filmmaking, believes that regulation may be the only long-term answer.

Illinois and several other US states, for example, design their tax rebates system to award diversity, he points out.

Online entertainment magazine Deadline recently reported that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was in settlement talks with the major studios to resolve charges that they systemically discriminated against female directors.

The EEOC doesn't comment on its investigations, and charges are made public only in the "last resort" instances where lawsuits are launched.

Putnam notes meanwhile that executives are beginning to see inclusivity as a "business imperative" since films with diverse casts enjoy the highest global box office receipts and the highest return on investment.