Disclaimer: This piece was written before the announcement earlier today that the Academy had invited nearly 700 new members to combat this lack of diversity problem.
I am a white British woman. I see an abundance of people like me in films. I don’t necessarily register them, but they are there, and I know subconsciously that I am accepted. I am a part of this industry by association; I should be honoured. In fact, I might even be regarded as a commodity overseas, as many British actors are when they step onto US soil.
Sadly, this isn’t the case for everyone. In fact, people often escape the suffocating and discriminatory environment of the film industry by seeking refuge, or liberation, in and through the world of theatre. Where theatre marries art and entertainment, film seemingly marries entertainment and crippling industry- full of unnecessary politics and fuelled by money concerns.
‘Think of tonight as the Oscars, but with diversity.’
James Corden certainly, and rightly, made a crack or two at the Oscar’s expense at the Tony Awards this year. Although the Academy Awards for any given year will vary in accordance with the films released that year, obvious mistakes have been made, not least the outrage when Straight Outta Compton (2015) did not receive the acknowledgement it deserved from the academy. There was celebration and exaltation in 2013, when Lupita N’yongo received an Oscar for best supporting actress in the film 12 Years A Slave, thus making her only the 6th black woman to do so in the award’s history. However, you have to ask yourself whether all these nominations were made for the right reasons. Did the academy feel it had to acknowledge 12 Years A Slave because of the white guilt associated with slavery, while it felt no pains to disregard a film about the people who revolutionised hip hop? Although this is savage speculation, the speculation has been caused by the Academy itself; by its lack of commitment to one of the key values needed in our society today- diversity.
In a recent interview with Will Smith on The Graham Norton Show, Smith stated that he felt that there was an overall regression, not just within the industry, but in the world, and one can’t help but agree. The UK’s EU Referendum has been simplified by many as a vote on immigration, and the growing threat of ISIS makes monsters of hardworking Muslim citizens, throwing them carelessly and wrongfully into disrepute. At a time like this, Smith argues that the Academy, and he speaks for himself as one among them, must lead the way. Despite theatre’s growing popularity, it can’t be denied that film has more power. Power not just to move mountains, but to avoid them altogether. In a world of adaptations and remakes, regression is being masked as progression, and entertainment is the only ingredient that counts. The film industry is held to ransom by its preconceptions of its consumers, assuming that a white world is the one they want to see. These consumers whom forever demand more in this binge-watching, multi-media society. Ensuring profits makes any new venture risky business, and ‘indie’ movies are a commodity Hollywood just cannot afford. The pressure exerted upon them is not of a moral shade, it’s just business.
This pressure of demand, and the potent consumerism of our society, is something the theatre manages to escape, purely because they don’t have the same affiliations. Although people may be disgruntled with casting and artistic choices on stage, the popularity of film propels any complaints such as these onto the world’s radar within a matter of seconds, with just the touch of a button. Millions of fans who don’t agree with casting choices can voice their concerns and swarm together, no matter how just or petty their opinions may be. The recasting of Rhodey that occurred between the hiatus of the first and second Iron Man films (2008 and 2010) was fan led, as people were unsatisfied with Terrence Howard’s performance; their demands were not met, and thus the industry bowed to their will in order to satisfy. Although this was not a matter of race, it proves the consumers’ power over the industry.
James Bond cannot be black; James Bond cannot be a woman; Hermione Granger cannot be black; all these rules that feed the intangible and imaginary demand for white actor supremacy. People are reverting to a tradition that was inherently wrong to begin with. James Bond would not have been a woman over 50 years ago when it was created, because women didn’t do that sort of thing back then. His masculinity came at the expense of women, so the franchise changed with the times in order to avoid labels of misogyny; but of course a woman could never play him- how ridiculous. Although there is a certain argument to be made when it comes to historical accuracy, James Bond movies are filmed as a reflection of the present, not the past.
Frankly, our diverse culture deserves diverse representation that follows suit; actors of all genders, races and ages should be considered for roles. However, is it a question of more flexible opportunities being offered to actors industry-wide, or should more roles be written specifically for people of different genders, races, ages?
Granted, the casting of Hermione in the new Harry Potter play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a matter of the theatre rather than film, but it reveals the power of avid readers- dedicated fans and theatre goers. Here, the two industries collided, and the sway and power of the cinema industry’s consumers was fully felt by the theatre community.
‘Theatre is a place where every race, creed, sexuality and gender is equal, is embraced and is loved.’
Theatre could be perceived by many as a minority industry, and so its superpower has always been diversity, as it appeared to be in Corden’s opening monologue acknowledging the devastation of the recent Orlando shootings. Perhaps theatre is so much more diverse because it was formed by those diverse minorities and outcasts to begin with. Even Corden was attracted more to the stage than to the screen; the screen where he probably rarely saw people like him prosper.
Racism and discrimination do still exist today; there is no getting away from it. Will Smith is right: we must all work together to change the industry that should be a microcosm of our world and how we aspire it to be.