Best Screenplays whitewash American narratives, wring Oscar diversity

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The Oscars were pretty white this year. All 20 of the acting nominees—leading and supporting, male and female—were white, and “Selma” was notably snubbed from almost all major categories—even Best Director. Ava DuVernay, the film’s director, would have been the first woman of color to be nominated in the category. And yes, she really, really deserved it.

DuVernay’s absence from this category highlights, in addition to a lack of color amongst the nominees, a cavernous gender divide. All of this years’ Best Director and Best Screenplay (Original or Adapted) nominees were men, and all but the four writers of “Birdman” were white. The most direct cause of this lack of diversity is the demographic makeup of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences itself.

Here’s how the nomination process works: Branches of the Academy vote on the best candidates in any particular category and nominate several for the Oscar. For instance, there is a writing branch in the Academy that votes on all of the original and adapted screenplays of a given year and narrows it down to five for each category. Once the branches determine the nominees, the entire Academy votes on the winners. So, once the nominees are determined, writers, actors, directors, producers, sound editors and everyone else in the Academy votes on the Best Screenplay nominees to crown the winners.

However, the list of the Oscar voters is perhaps even less diverse than the 2015 Oscar nominees. According to a 2012 Los Angeles Times article, 94 percent of voters are male and 77 percent are Caucasian. In addition, the median age of Oscar voters is 62, with just 14 percent under 50 years old. These numbers make one wonder if Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the only black woman in the entire institution.

However, I do not think that the entire Academy needs to completely change the demographics of its membership by next year—just the writing branch.

People do not talk about the lack of diversity of Hollywood screenwriters nearly as much as they should. Yes, the diversity problems in the acting, directing and Best Picture categories are all important, but the screenwriter problem unites them; if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated a more diverse group of writers for its Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay categories, a more diverse pool of other nominees would follow—particularly in the acting categories—since writers are responsible for the backgrounds of the characters played by Oscar-nominated actors.

Writers tend to write what they know, which explains why there are so many novels about novelists, so many plays about playwrights, and so many original screenplays about screenwriters—just take a look at Woody Allen’s body of work. Even if they don’t quite go to his extreme, writers tend to at least write about characters like themselves. Obviously this is not true across the board—”Selma” was written by a middle-aged white guy named Paul Webb—but it might explain why the 10 nominated screenplays written by predominantly white men all featured white male protagonists.

Because all of the strongest characters in these screenplays (all of which are written well enough to nab Oscar nominations) are white men, they are played by white actors. This limits the opportunities of actors of color to be cast in roles that could earn them Oscar nominations. This surfeit of strong, white male characters also means that there are fewer strong female characters of any race in award-worthy cinema and Hollywood in general. As a result, there is typically a hyper-competitive Best Actor category and a much less competitive Best Actress category, stitched together from movies that probably have not been seen by most people and are not nominated for much else. The disparity between the number of well-written male and female characters is so pronounced that if the acting categories for men and women were combined, there would not be many actresses nominated for acting Oscars at all.

A more diverse list of Best Screenplay nominees would instantly create a more diverse pool of strong, dynamic characters; this, in turn, would lead to a more diverse list of Best Actor and Best Actress nominees.

And it is imperative that the Oscars become more diverse. This awards ceremony dictates the type of high-caliber cinema that the average American goes to see and the kind of social narrative to which he or she is exposed; it is one of the tallest pedestals west of Washington on which social issues are elevated into American consciousness. If the Oscars remain as they are, they will hide a plethora of social issues not only from the eyes of the entertainment industry, but from the eyes of the movie-going public.

Gregory Feiner is a first-year who is undeclared. He can be reached at feiner@oxy.edu or on Twitter @GregFeiner.