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If you’re among the small number of directors or actors who isn’t white, there is finally some cause to be excited about what’s happening in Hollywood.
For the first time in Academy Awards history, a black man — British filmmaker Steve McQueen — may win the directing Oscar for his heralded, harrowing film “12 Years a Slave.”
Besides McQueen, critics and awards voters are celebrating the work of other people of color, singling out “Gravity’s” Mexican-born filmmaker, Alfonso Cuarón, the African American talk show host Oprah Winfrey from “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” and a variety of black actors, including Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”), Barkhad Abdi (“Captain Phillips”) and Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station”).
But all of those achievements mask fundamental, enduring problems within the movie industry.
A few weeks of feel-good inclusion can’t alter the more troubling fact that opportunities for people of color remain scarce and that, for all of the Academy Award interest these directors and actors are receiving, Hollywood ultimately will judge their value using the only yardstick it believes matters: box-office performance.
“It’s a big issue,” said Lee Daniels, who directed “The Butler.” “People can say, ‘I’m sick of hearing about the race issue.’ But it has to be addressed. I just think it’s time for us to actually be at the party.”
Several other prominent black filmmakers say that change within show business remains glacial. Even if Hollywood likes to present itself as magnanimous and liberal, its hiring decisions — including jobs handed to women — continue to be demographically constricted, with most work still going to white men.
It’s not just movies that are an issue. The Directors Guild of America recently found that 73% of all primetime TV episodes were made by Caucasian males, and the Screen Actors Guild concluded that 76% of all leading roles in television and film were given to Caucasians. (Separately, the picture for women of all races is similarly depressing, and yet again no female filmmakers are contending for the directing Oscar.)
Following a 2012 Los Angeles Times study that found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was whiter, older and more male than the organization’s toughest critics feared, the academy has tried to diversify its ranks.
The last two classes of people invited to become Oscar voters look far less like members of a country club, even if the invitees hardly mirror the nation itself, where African Americans, Latinos and Asians collectively make up more than 35% of the population. But because the academy has more than 6,000 voters, the more diverse new members haven’t been able to change the organization’s overall makeup in a meaningful way.
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Roger Ross Williams, the first black director to win an Oscar for making 2010’s documentary short “Music by Prudence,” has been shortlisted in the documentary feature race this year for his film “God Loves Uganda.” He said that while he was “thrilled” to be invited into the academy earlier this year — “but it was three years after I won,” he noted — he still feels like an interloper when he’s in a room with fellow Oscar voters.
“I don’t see a lot of people who look like me, and that’s unfortunate,” Williams said. “I do applaud the academy for trying to change things. They really are making an effort. But the real world is still much more diverse than Hollywood. And I think it’s because of opportunity — there are not of lot of opportunities for African Americans to enter the field.”
If movie studios are so far failing to do their part, some film schools are entering the void.
USC’s School of Cinematic Arts actively recruits at historically black colleges and in parts of the country — Miami and East Los Angeles, for example — with high Latino populations. In just 10 years, the number of Latino applicants to USC’s graduate program has almost tripled, while African American applicants have almost doubled (Caucasian applications have gone up about 38% in the same time period).
“We think you create a better intellectual and artistic climate when you have diverse people coming together,” said Elizabeth Daley, the film school’s dean.
Several filmmakers said part of the problem inside Hollywood is that studio executives often assume that minority filmmakers only connect with minority moviegoers: Tyler Perry, an African American director whose audience is almost entirely African American, is the norm, in other words. By that same logic, though, only women would attend the movies of Kathryn Bigelow.
“You can get stuck in a way of thinking that’s not accurate,” said Ryan Coogler, the African American writer and director of “Fruitvale Station.” “And that is that people don’t go see movies that come from a certain perspective.”
Dede Gardner, a producer of “12 Years a Slave,” said the critical acclaim and commercial success of movies made by people of color prove that moviegoers are hungry for the full spectrum of storytelling. “It really suggests that people are curious about what’s outside the shrinking parameters of their lives,” Gardner said.
As Daniels proved with “The Butler,” a fictional account of a black White House servant, audiences of all kinds will come see an entertaining and engaging movie regardless of the skin color of its director or lead actor. “The Butler” has grossed more than $116 million in domestic release, making it one of the Top 25 releases of the year. Playing in about half as many theaters as “The Butler,” “12 Years a Slave” could soon surpass $40 million as largely white audiences have flooded art houses to see McQueen’s slave drama.
Ultimately it will be those financial returns — rather than the movie business actually becoming as progressive and open-minded as it supposes it is — that will govern Hollywood’s future hiring decisions. As Daniels noted: “You can’t ignore that these movies made a lot of money.”