'Straight Outta Compton,' 'Suffragette' Among Awards Season Contenders That Prove Diversity Is Possible

Jamie Trueblood/Universal Pictures; Steffan Hill/Focus Features

Following 2015's #OscarsSoWhite protest hashtag, 2016's doors have opened to both the black actors that are in contention and the movies that are addressing women’s issues, paving the way for different voices and rising talents.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Let's first stipulate that when it comes to providing opportunities for women, the motion picture industry isn't doing a very good job. The facts speak for themselves. In 2014, only two films among the top 100-grossing movies were directed by women. And according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, among the top 250 films in 2014, only 7 percent were directed by women, and women comprised only 11 percent of all writers, 19 percent of executive producers and 23 percent of producers. When the stats are compiled for 2015, those numbers aren't expected to change dramatically.

Let's further stipulate that while television has begun casting actors of color in prominent roles, the motion picture business lags behind. Last season, that became painfully obvious when all 20 Academy Award acting nominations went to white actors, leading to the creation of the protest hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. This year, at least on the male side of the ledger, there are black actors who are definitely in contention — Will Smith in Concussion, Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation, Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight, Michael B. Jordan in Creed, among them — so, depending on how the nominations fall, if a similar hashtag emerges, it could be more like #OscarsNotQuiteSoWhite.

And let's finally stipulate that the Oscars themselves, since they tend to focus on a certain type of generally high-minded movie, offer only a partial portrait of the larger film industry. At best, it's a limited snapshot, for even if the Academy ultimately produces a diverse array of nominations, that doesn't let the movie business itself off the hook.

But with all that being said, and not to sugarcoat the situation, this year's class of best picture contenders is an encouragingly diverse lot.

Start with the movies that address women's issues, none more so directly than Focus Features' Suffragette, which looks back to the England of 1912 when women were in the midst of a pitched and surprisingly violent battle to win the vote. With Carey Mulligan playing a fictional working-class woman who gets caught up in the movement and Meryl Streep lending support as feminist Emmeline Pankhurst, the $14 million film wasn't an easy sell. As screenwriter Abi Morgan said at the movie's London opening: "A film that is fronted by an ensemble of women, and they are not being funny or romantic, is hard. That became a huge obstacle." Added its director Sarah Gavron at the film's Telluride unveiling: "This story has taken over 100 years to tell. I've worked on it for 10 years."

But, then, no one ever said that putting together so-called women's pictures was going to be easy. Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey, the producers of Fox Searchlight's Brooklyn, in which Saoirse Ronan plays an Irish immigrant torn between one lover in the Old World and one in the New, required stitching together 13 pieces of financing and tax incentives from three countries. The producers of A24's deliberately small-scale Room, in which Brie Larson and newcomer Jacob Tremblay play a mother and son trapped in a shed for much of the movie, had to work on just a $6 million budget. All of which suggests that when movies that focus on women and their experiences do get made, they tend to get made on the margins of the industry.

But at the same time, there were changes afoot in some of the big-budget studio fare, where roles that once auto­matically would have gone to men were handed over to female protagonists. As the extravagantly named Imperator Furiosa, Charlize Theron drove much of the action, quite literally, in Warner Bros.' Mad Max: Fury Road and in the eyes of a lot of commentators stole the movie from male co-star Tom Hardy. In the case of Fox's The Martian, Jessica Chastain ably commanded the Ares III mission to Mars and called the shots when it came time to attempt a daring rescue of Matt Damon's astronaut. Emily Blunt played an FBI agent in Lionsgate's Sicario. And though Warners' Our Brand Is Crisis lost awards momentum when it came up cold at the box office — it has grossed $7 million — it still earns points for taking a character, the political campaign consultant based on the colorful James Carville, and switching genders once Sandra Bullock expressed an interest in the part.

Behind the camera, though, signs of progress are much fewer and farther between. Only a couple of movies in the awards-season scrum were directed by women: Suffragette, the second feature that Gavron has helmed, and the Patricia Clarkson-Ben Kingsley indie Learning to Drive (from Broad Green Pictures), directed by veteran Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet. On the other hand, women did begin to make inroads in the field of cinematography, one craft that has been dominated by men. The Australia-born Mandy Walker shot SPC's Truth, the behind-the-scenes look at the 60 Minutes Rathergate scandal — which happened to be told from the point of view of producer Mary Mapes, played by Cate Blanchett. Maryse Alberti filmed both the boxing movie Creed and the drama Freeheld. And Reed Morano not only served as cinematographer but also directed her first feature, Meadowland.

By contrast, women producers no longer are a rarity — even in testosterone-driven movies. Mary Parent helped with Fox's logistically challenged The Revenant, while Stacey Sher and Shannon McIntosh were both producers on The Weinstein Co.'s The Hateful Eight. Actress turned producer Giannina Scott explains she urged her husband, Ridley Scott, to option the material that became Sony's Concussion, because, "It restored my faith in humanity." And veteran indie producer Christine Vachon joined forces with her old friend Elizabeth Karlsen to bring Carol to the screen.

On another front, several black dramas claimed prominent positions. Universal's Straight Outta Compton became an unexpected summer hit, grossing $161 million. More than just a musical biopic about hip- hop group N.W.A, its concerns dovetailed with the growing Black Lives Matter movement. Says director F. Gary Gray of filming confrontations between the cops and the N.W.A members: "Experiencing it take after take reminded me of my experiences growing up." Similarly, Spike Lee's new Chi-Raq speaks directly to the black-on-black crime in Chicago, where the movie is set, and even though the film is headed to Amazon, it posted a solid opening over the Dec. 2 weekend, grossing nearly $1.2 million in just 305 theaters. On a more upbeat note, Ryan Coogler's Creed — in which a black champion played by Michael B. Jordan picks up Rocky Balboa's mantle — is shaping up as a big hit for MGM and Warners. And looking abroad, writer-director Cary Fukunaga took a look at the grim lives of child soldiers in Africa in Beasts of No Nation, streaming on Netflix.

Additionally, LGBT concerns came to the fore in several other films, especially Todd Haynes' Carol, although it's probably time to stop calling the TWC film a lesbian love story and just classify it as a love story starring Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Focus' The Danish Girl took a sympathetic look at transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, played by Eddie Redmayne. And Spirit Award contender Tangerine, from Magnolia, established its authenticity when director Sean Baker cast two transgender actresses, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, to play his scrappy heroines.

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