BAFTAsSoWhite Again: Lack of Diversity in Acting Categories Sparks Backlash

BAFTA Award - Getty - H 2017
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Not a single person of color was nominated in the main acting categories, while women were shut out of the best director shortlist.

It's been four years since the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which spilled over across the Atlantic when it was pointed out that, in 2015, BAFTA voters failed to include a single nonwhite face on their lists of nominated actors. It sparked up again in 2017, when the BAFTA shortlists for leading actor and leading actress were also an all-white affair. 

A year later, in 2018, a report was published showing that 94 percent of all BAFTA film award nominees have been white. The analysis by business psychology firm Pearn Kandola also revealed that 92 percent of nominees for best supporting actor and best supporting actress had been white.

It looks like another significant debate — and another sore head for the British Academy — might be on the cards in 2020. 

BAFTA on Tuesday unveiled its film awards nominations, with the leading actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress shortlist — 20 names in total — being entirely white. There was no space for Harriet's Cynthia Erivo (also a Brit), Hustlers' Jennifer Lopez, Dolemite Is My Name's Eddie Murphy or The Farewell's Awkwafina, who all had Golden Globe nominations (although Awkwafina landed a Rising Star BAFTA nomination). Lupita Nyong'o (Us) and Antonio Banderas (Pain & Glory) were also snubbed by the British Academy. Elsewhere, a number of acclaimed debut films from black British filmmakers failed to make the outstanding debut category. 

Only in the Rising Star category — selected by a jury rather than members — was there any diversity, with local boy Micheal Ward (Blue Story) plus Awkwafina and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Waves) nominated for the emerging talent honor. 

The news immediately sparked anger on social media, where the #BAFTAsSoWhite hashtag was quick to spring up. Many pointed out that BAFTA gave Margot Robbie not one, but two nominations in the same category (best supporting actress for Bombshell and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), and another two to Scarlett Johansson (leading actress for Marriage Story, supporting actress for Jojo Rabbit), and yet couldn't shortlist anyone of color. 

While the problem isn't the direct fault of BAFTA, which has tweaked its rules on joining in an effort to diversify its membership in recent years, the British Academy becomes for many the main focus of frustrations regarding the U.K. industry. 

"2019 gave us Farming, The Last Tree, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Blue Story, and Cynthia Erivo in Harriet," said Akua Gyamfi, founder of the British Blacklist, considered the IMDb for the U.K's British African and Caribbean market. "Usually, I'm ready to blast the U.K film industry as a whole for its inability to support diverse stories getting to the big screen. It's still not off the hook, but at least we've had some strong offerings in those films I've just mentioned."

Gyamfi argued that both Farming by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Chiwetel Ejiofor's The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind were perhaps the best placed for BAFTA recognition, saying she was "perplexed" neither had been nominated for debut director. 

"It would seem the scrutiny and benchmark of excellence black films are put through when it comes to being recognized by mainstream awards is loftier than 'white' films," she added. "I'm against tokenism, I don't want black projects to be nominated for the sake of it, but I'm conscious of how members vote."

BAFTA acknowledged the issue, admitting it — too — was frustrated.

"We'd have liked to have seen more diversity in the nominations, it does continue to be an industry-wide issue," BAFTA's director of awards, Emma Baehr, told The Hollywood Reporter following the nominations. "I think more films need to be made, and entered, giving people a chance to see them. We'd absolutely like to see more diversity, but I also don't want to take away from those celebrating today."

This year's diversity conversation is — once again — also including the lack of female directors, with this year's crop of best director nominees an all-male lineup.

Baehr said the list was "disappointing," but added that they were encouraged by a rise in entries for female filmmakers, up from 10 percent last year to 19 percent in 2020, with 13 nominated outside of the main director category as compared with eight in 2019.