“Moonlight,” a film about the journey of a gay black man, won Oscars for best picture, adapted screenplay and supporting actor. “Fences,” the story of a black family in 1950’s Pittsburgh won for supporting actress. “Hidden Figures,” based on the true story of black women mathematicians who helped launch NASA’s space program, and “Lion,” about a young Indian man’s search for his family, were both nominated for best picture and other awards.
Last Sunday’s Academy Awards clearly showed progress in the recognition of diverse stories and a dramatic improvement from the #OscarsSoWhite debacle of the year before.
But what about Hollywood’s future? Did the night signify a trend toward greater representation on screen or was it just a blip on the radar?
To help answer that question, The Times spoke with seven undergraduate and graduate film and television students at Westchester’s Loyola Marymount University. The group included Indian, Mexican American and black filmmakers and women screenwriters from across the country — all students with projects informed by today’s social climate.
They looked at Hollywood with a mixture of optimism and skepticism. They see more opportunities ahead for people of diverse backgrounds but believe there’s a long way to go before film and television reflects the kind of multicultural world they live in.
“We just want Hollywood to hear us. We want to tell so many things that we are facing in our day-to-day lives; we want to express that through our work,” said 24-year-old graduate filmmaking student Varun Chopra.
The students are realistic about the obstacles that lie ahead for women and people of color in an industry that has historically been dominated by white men.
“People often say just pull yourself up by the bootstraps, but you’ve got to have boots first,” MFA student Quran Squire said. “Often that’s the biggest difference: resource, resources for people of color, resources in any sort of way to lower economic status or black communities.”
Eden Rousso is an undergraduate screenwriting student with dreams of working in a writers room. Although she enjoyed this year’s ceremony, including Oscars for black actors Viola Davis and Mahershala Ali (also the first Muslim actor ever to win an Oscar), she was struck by the lack of Oscar-nominated female directors and the need for more diversity behind the camera.
“There was a lot more black representation, which is awesome, but there are so many more ethnicities than white and black,” Rousso, 20, said. “I feel like that’s what Hollywood is trying to do — ‘let’s get some black people in there, then we’re not racist anymore.’”
Likewise, Chopra believed that the academy’s lauded diversity stemmed from an attempt to save face after #OscarsSoWhite backlash.
“We’ll have to see if it’s not just this year’s best picture nominations, but if opportunities for diverse people also follow through in the coming years,” Chopra noted. “I hope it does.”
Looking beyond the Oscars and paying attention to the types of stories that get greenlighted was much more important to MFA screenwriting student Octavia Bray.
“The amount of opportunities available for people who are not straight, white males are slim,” Bray, 25, said. “I think beyond just recognizing that there are other stories out there, people who are in positions of power need to say ‘I guess I’ll go out and make these things.’”
The students spoke about the high demand for greater representation on screen; the acclaim for “Hidden Figures” and its success at the box office was particularly encouraging. But they bemoaned the lack of Latino, Asian and Muslim stories.
“I’d like to steer a little away from Oscars,” Ashley Marie Ryan, 25, said. “Even though we’re not seeing diversity in film, in television it’s changing slowly.”
Ryan, an MFA student in television writing, has an interest in creating roles that feature older characters and various types of sexuality not often seen in mainstream media.
“But I’m not satisfied with the pace with which things are changing,” Bray, who is also pursuing television writing, countered. “It angers me that we’re expected to be satisfied with one or two things.”
Interested in combining science fiction with an urban backdrop, Squire, 23, had an unforgettable experience while filming in Inglewood last year. One child at a park approached Squire to ask if he was a filmmaker like Spike Lee.
“We don’t have any other representation of that. I gotta be the next Spike Lee for this kid?” Squire asked, rhetorically. “We have to change that dynamic.”
Ryan noted that one of Hollywood’s biggest barriers is its exclusivity. Although she’s held internships at companies like STARZ, she believes her path to the writers room will be a difficult one.
“For any one of us to create a show and run that show in a way we find meaningful, that level of experience takes 15 to 20 years,” she said.
But Chopra saw opportunity in the “American dream,” and the chance to create work in the world’s biggest platform. His passion lies in telling niche stories about subjects on the fringes of society.
The recent election of Donald Trump both inspired and deflated the students. Chopra had faith that innovative work would come from the political ferment following President Trump’s victory.
However, after the election undergraduate film student Antonio De Loera-Brust began to question the role of storytelling and whether making films would really drive the change he wanted to see in society. With a passion for immigration issues, De Loera-Brust in his recent short film, “Campito Kids,” tells the story of a migrant worker’s children and their struggle to assimilate into an American school.
The 21-year old wondered if he should switch gears to pursue politics.
“My priority for the next four years for me is to fight deportations and beyond that win elections,” De Loera-Brust said. “A lot of the solution isn’t just make a good movie. I don’t know if we have to rise up as artists; we have to rise up as people.”
Others were more upbeat about the future and excited about creating work and telling stories free of the limitations and tropes that have plagued Hollywood — stories free of racial, gender and sexual orientation constraints.
The Oscars-not-so-white was a good start but just a start, the students believe.
“I think our generation is going to be better,” said MFA writing student Patrick Pittis, 28. “But I think our generation is going to have to challenge ourselves not to fall into the same traps.”