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Did you know that when Top Gun was released in 1986 the number of young men who enlisted in the U.S Navy wanting to be Naval aviators went up 500%? It’s an interesting bit of trivia, all the more poignant today as it touches on the issue that is at the heart of the #oscarssowhite controversy. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past two weeks, this years Academy Award nominations have caused controversy for once again failing to nominate a single person of colour for any of the four acting awards. This becomes even more shocking when you take into account how few of the most prestigious individual awards the Academy offers include non-white nominees.
It’s not hard to understand why there’s such a lack of diversity at this year’s Academy Awards. Firstly, there is clearly not enough major roles given to people of colour. It’s virtually impossible to nominate people for films they were never given the chance to be involved in. Secondly, the Academy is absurdly out of touch with modern film audiences. Only 56% of cinema audiences in American in 2014 were white, 48% were male, and just over 1/5th of them were over the age of 60. Meanwhile, those chosen to vote on the Academy Awards were 94% white, 76% male, and had an average age of 63. The reason for this massive difference, is to get on the panel you have to be selected by two people already on the panel, and from this outdated system, an obscenely conservative voting panel was formed.
There has inevitably been the usual smug responses from those who think this is all a fuss about nothing. It’s most prevalent form has been to suggest that those upset over the lack of non-white nominees should be equally upset about the lack of French, and Chinese nominees. They conveniently ignore the fact that the Oscars only ever really go to films produced in America. In fact only 12 films not produced in America have ever won the award for best film, and 11 of those were produced in the U.K. You’d therefore expect the awards to reflect the racial diversity of America itself – something they so evidently do not.
The Oscars are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. As mentioned earlier, the issue is not simply that white people are over-represented in Academy Award nominations, but rather that they are over-represented in every aspect of the American film industry. In fact, as shown in the 2014 Ridley Scott film Exodus: Gods and Kings, Hollywood studios will go to extraordinarily lengths to avoid casting people of colour in their films. A report into diversity in Hollywood, which focused on the top 200 theatrical releases between 2012 and 2013, found that black and ethnic minorities were outnumbered more than 2 to 1 among lead roles in Hollywood, 2 to 1 among film directors, and 3 to 1 among film writers. The figures are reflected when you compare the number of roles offered to men and women. Women are outnumbered in every category, most shockingly 8 to 1 among film directors. The fact that film studio heads are 94% white and 100% male may go someway to explaining this discrepancy. These figures are staggering, and surely demonstrate people of colour, and women are being denied opportunities in the American film industry.
You could fall back on the old adage that films led by anyone but white men would be a financial catastrophe. This, however, could not be further from the truth as films with diverse casts enjoyed the highest median box office receipts between 2012 and 2013 and their economic viability was so beautifully demonstrated by the success of the latest Star Wars movie last month. Of course, you could suggest that financial success has no relation to artistic merit – and the reason most Academy Award nominees are white is that they are simply better at making movies (which I suspect is how most people who defend the system truly feel), but that requires you to believe that all work by South American, Asian, and African filmmakers is inherently worse than those produced by their Western European and North American counterparts – which is ridiculous.
Returning to the Top Gun statistic, the reason I love it so much is that it demonstrates that films, and the messages included within them, matter. They have the potential to mold our entire perception of the world – from our fashion choices to our political opinions, there is not an aspect of our lives that is not influenced by cinema. Rather than this being an inadvertent side effect, it is part of film’s power that it is able to strike at the heart of our emotions and make us see things about the world around us. Everyone from D.W Griffith, through Joseph Goebbels, right on to Al Gore, understood this, and with this understanding surely it is impossible to argue for such a thing as an amoral film.
Racial discrimination in any industry is deplorable – but in an industry which has such value in the formation of ideas in our minds it becomes a whole other issue. By relegating African-American to side characters, or cheap narrow stereotypes, these films perpetuate the idea that this all they are able to be. Just as Top Gun led thousands of young men to believe they could be Naval pilots, it’s easy to see non-white cinema-goers might become convinced that this all they could be – that even in their own life they are confined to being a secondary character. Even more sinister is the evidence that this perception of African-Americans has been closely tied to their place in the social structure of the United States.
If you need any more evidence of how desperately things need to change in the Western film industry, look at how people like Charlotte Rampling have attempted to defend this status quo. Through increasingly ridiculous arguments, so devoid of any links with reality they may as well have come from the scripts of a Doctor Who episode, they’ve been forced to abandon any sense of reason. As Idris Elba was right to point out, these problems are blatantly not contained to U.S, and British film and television corporations are equally culpable of these prejudices. Those involved in these industries have a choice. Adapt to the times, and abandon their outdated systems, or continue with them and face continued backlash and inevitable irrelevancy.