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Each year, I and several other Hollywood Reporter editors put together the roundtables that are a defining element of this publication’s awards coverage through the Emmy and Oscar seasons.
For those not fully versed in the arcana of Hollywood, the awards work like this: people produce a vast amount of film and television, some of it awful, some exceptional and a whole lot in between. Getting a shiny statuette (either an Oscar or Emmy) tells the world which side of the spectrum they tend toward; this is the ultimate validation that sets a winner apart from the pack. One award can change the trajectory of a whole career, save a network and even resuscitate the fortunes of an ailing executive. Equally important, an award can mean millions at the box office — or in the winner’s pocket when his or her agent negotiates a new deal.
Awards are a year-round obsession here (“You have awards ceremonies, we have elections,” newsman David Brinkley once quipped to me), with a host of activity and attempts to game the system going on long before fans turn on the TV to watch celebrities walk the red carpet, be it at the Oscars or the Emmys.
“Awards consultants” are hired, and a king’s ransom’s worth of marketing money is assigned by the studios and networks to support the shows, movies and stars they believe might have a shot. There are parties, special screenings, private receptions hosted by the famous and infamous, all steeped in a thick broth of punditry about just who is leading the race at any one moment — along with the deliciously diabolical whispering campaigns that aim to topple front-runners months before some films have even opened. Forget about politics: This makes Trump vs. Carson vs. Clinton vs. Sanders look like preschool.
Part of the promotional cycle includes taking part in one of THR’s Roundtables. These are glossy and engaging, visually and verbally entertaining, and at times even substantive. Few A-listers have not participated in one through the years, and there’s often a campaign before the campaign to get the right clients on board.
So how are people picked, and when? Often they’re chosen before anyone has even seen their films, when our editors are faced with tough decisions on whom to include and whom to turn down — not to mention juggling the myriad schedules of the far-flung members of the Hollywood tribe. We rely on early buzz from the festivals, word of mouth from insiders who may have seen rough cuts of the films and a calculated guess at which studio is throwing its weight behind whom. Behind every movie and every star is Hollywood’s version of the Koch brothers, battling for their chosen candidates to win.
In doing all that this year, as we prepared for this cover, we discovered precisely zero actresses of color in the Oscar conversation — at least in the weeks in early September when the Roundtables are put together, months before the nominations are announced Jan. 14.
I don’t in any way wish to diminish the actresses on our cover. This current roundtable is a triumph, appropriately published today on the fifth anniversary of THR’s shift from daily newspaper to weekly magazine. I anchored a conversation featuring eight of the most talented actresses alive: Cate Blanchett, Jane Fonda, Brie Larson, Jennifer Lawrence, Helen Mirren, Carey Mulligan, Charlotte Rampling and Kate Winslet.
Yet even for me, a white man, it was impossible to ignore the fact that every one of these women is white — whether old or young, English, Australian or American. That was appalling. The awful truth is that there are no minority actresses in genuine contention for an Oscar this year. Straight Outta Compton, which provided some great roles for African-American men (and whose success bolsters the case that studios ignore minority audiences at their peril) had no female leads. Furious 7? Not quite Oscar bait.
This at a time when people of color make up almost 38 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and African-Americans, in particular, buy far more movie tickets per capita than Caucasians.
Two years ago, I was thrilled that three of the six women on our Roundtable were black: Oprah Winfrey, Lupita Nyong’o and Octavia Spencer. I thought, perhaps naively, that this represented a sea change in the film business, and hoped it was catching up with the tectonic shifts that industries all across America have had to make to reflect this country’s diversity. But I was wrong.
Both Spike Lee and motion picture Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs addressed the issue of diversity at Saturday’s Governors Awards, a precursor to the Oscars, where the former noted: “When I go to [film studio] offices, I don’t see black faces except the security guard who signs me in. … This industry is so far behind sports it’s ridiculous.” He added that it was easier to become a black president than a black studio chief.
It’s comforting that Taraji P. Henson (who took part in our Oscar Roundtable following 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) has found stardom on TV thanks to Empire, though she never quite managed that in film. It’s a relief that, while the movie business could not find leading roles for Viola Davis (a Roundtable participant for 2011’s The Help), Shonda Rhimes did — she’s now starring in ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder.
Davis addressed the problem head-on when she won an Emmy this year, saying: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
So who’s responsible? The Academy drew flak for failing to nominate Selma in many categories, but the Academy doesn’t make films, any more than The Hollywood Reporter does: It recognizes work that the industry creates.
Speak to the executives that run the industry, and they say they want change. But there are hardly any black film executives, and too few producers. Black directors? Not enough — and certainly there’s a serious dearth of black female directors.
Just prior to the Governors Awards, Boone Isaacs announced a new initiative to boost diversity, noting: “When it comes to fair and equal representation in our industry, words are not enough.”
Even as a writer, I couldn’t agree more. Nor do I hold myself and my colleagues free of blame. Yes, THR has spent time and money launching a mentoring program for underserved girls that is now about to enter its seventh year. But that’s not enough.
On our most recent Director Roundtable, forced to choose among three superb filmmakers for one slot, I opted for Ridley Scott rather than Straight Outta Compton director F. Gary Gray, an African-American. The Martian had opened to exceptional acclaim and box office, and Scott looked like the front-runner for the Oscar. Still, I now wish I had added Gray to the mix, and regret that I ignored both his lawyer’s and his agents’ pleas to do so. At least I can take comfort in having three men of color on our upcoming Actor Roundtable.
If there were far more minority men and women to choose from, this sort of hand-wringing wouldn’t exist. And it’s about time it changed.
Unless the half-dozen men and women now running the major studios demand and foster a culture of diversity, the status quo will continue as it is. And I’ll be writing a mea culpa every year.
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