Oscars and casting: Hollywood insiders discuss diversity

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Image Credit: Robert Zuckerman

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Mo’Nique, who played an abusive mother in Precious to a victimized daughter portrayed by Oscar-nominated newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, has been vocal about how people of color, like herself and Sidibe, are represented in film. In her own Oscar acceptance speech, she pointedly thanked Hattie McDaniel, who became the first black performer to win an acting Oscar, in 1940, for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind.

But with studios and many industry folks tight-lipped about the continued process of including more gifted non-white actors in movies slated for Oscar contention, Mo’Nique asked for a way to officially regulate the inclusion of people of color in Hollywood in general.

“When you provide the statistics that you have, regarding the racial disparity from award shows to just work for the actors and actresses of color in Hollywood, it makes it blatantly obvious that a problem exists,” Mo’Nique told EW by email. “However, when you ask actors and actresses of color what do they feel about this subject, you already know the answer to the question because we’ve heard them for years saying the treatment is not fair, but we are not the decision makers.”

So who are the decision makers? In part, they’re the Academy voters. According to a Los Angeles Times study this past February, Oscar voters – who work within various parts of the industry – are nearly 94 percent white, 77 percent male, with a median age of 62, compared to black members making up about 2, and Latinos less than 2 percent.

A study by the University of California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism out earlier this year that looked at best picture Oscar-nominated films from 1977 through 2010, found that of speaking characters in those movies, a majority 78 percent are white, 11.6 are black, 7 percent are Asian, and only 1.9 percent Hispanic.

“Maybe we should try something bold, like instead of asking the people who have to endure the disparity in Hollywood about what they think, why not ask the decision makers who are creating the disparity in Hollywood about what they think,” added Mo’Nique. “At that point, along with discussions on creating an entity designed to police this industry for equal opportunities for people of color, just like in the regular work force, then we would be on our way to fairness and parity in this business.”

University of Southern California film professor Amanda Pope, whose specialty is documentary films, not only lamented a lack of representation when it comes to Oscar touted movies and actors, but also the double-edged sword of representation in films such as The Help, which brought out beautiful performances from Oscar winner Octavia Spencer and Oscar nominee Viola Davis, albeit playing stereotyped roles for black women: maids.

“It’s a bleak picture. For the Academy to honor African-American actors in the The Help, it’s almost an old pattern. Can people get attention other than playing maids? What about great, sexy, individual characters?” asked Pope. “The actors exist, but the roles need to be written. In documentary, we’re bringing along some wonderful young filmmakers who will challenge the status quo, who are both people of diversity and women. But they’re not ready yet for major Oscars. Give them 10 years and the opportunity to work.”

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