How to Fix the Oscars: Take a Cue From the Sports World and Fix the Talent Pool (Guest Column)

Derrick Cameron - H 2015
Rob Kalmbach

Derrick Cameron - H 2015

Writing for THR, Ghetto Film School artistic director Derrick Cameron argues that filmmaking, like sports, must be seen as an attainable route to success for young people, or the diversity stats won't change.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The Oscar nominations were announced Jan. 15 and, outside of the critically acclaimed Selma, the list of nominees looks more like an episode of Friends than Soul Train. Each year, industry experts express outrage at the lack of diversity among Oscar nominees, citing 12.2 percent of minorities working behind the camera as director and 7.6 percent as writers, according to the 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report. Film is America’s No. 1 creative export and yet we still project a homogenized image of American culture to the world. Why does this persist? We have not invested in developing new voices in American cinema, particularly from communities that reflect our various cultures. Most observers reason that institutionalized racism has resulted in a pool of diverse filmmakers that is shallow at best. Cost has also been cited as a barrier to entry, though innovations in technology now provide affordable ways to produce content for anyone with access to a camera and computer, making this the most opportune time to capitalize on our diversity in our nation’s history. 

The good news is, it’s increasingly clear that audiences are embracing films and television shows depicting the real America; as evidenced in last year’s best picture Oscar winner, 12 Years a Slave, there is demand. What’s missing is a path that’s designed to bring the right stories, backed by a wide swath of diverse talent, to screens of all sizes.

So where are we growing diverse new talent? One area is sports. Communities in the Bronx, South Los Angeles and the South Side of Chicago produce many college scholarship athletes every year as sports are viewed in these neighborhoods as an attainable route to success. At an early age, athletes are challenged and have the chance to practice and revise while rebounding from training defeats and setbacks. Imagine if we applied this same outlook to filmmaking. Think of how radically different our film and TV programming would be if diverse young people were encouraged to pour their creative energies into sharing their stories with the world; media would serve as a true reflection of who we are as a country. Families in working-class neighborhoods would no longer feel the need to push their children away from the arts to instead pursue “stable” and “respectable” professions such as law and medicine.

In 2015, millennials will have more creative tools and distribution outlets at their disposal than ever — yet none of this matters if their schools and communities don’t understand the value of developing children’s creative lives. There are a number of studies that show if you develop a skill at a young age, you are likely to retain that skill throughout adulthood. According to The Adolescent Brain by Valerie Reyna and Sandra Chapman, teens are intellectually intrigued by tasks that are authentic and perceived as challenging or relevant to their own lives. If we want to change the paradigm of Hollywood and provide a new avenue for learning for our children, we should be applying this approach and developing cinematic education for diverse youth.

With training in film and TV production, students learn skills necessary to thrive in the 21st century: improvisation, problem solving, collaboration and empathy. The earlier minority students are introduced to this creative field, the more they’ll gravitate toward it for the rest of their adulthood. Look at Spike Lee, a black man born in Brooklyn to working-class parents. The son of a jazz musician father and mother who taught art and black literature, he was exposed to creativity as a career option as a young boy. He pursued this dream all the way through NYU and has become one of the most prolific filmmakers of his generation. The earlier we expose our youth to cinema, the better socialized larger communities will be to considering filmmaking as a viable career path. Students will gain undeniable transferable skills for any sector, and there will be a robust increase in the pool of diverse filmmakers. We need organizations and programs in these communities rooted in creative education.

This year’s Oscar host, Neil Patrick Harris, is a gay man living with his husband and children in Harlem. Think about that — how impossible this would have been to imagine even 10 years ago and the promise it represents for solving so many diversity problems. We need to initiate young people to careers in film and TV earlier in life if we want to drive and embrace a real appetite for better storytelling and see a list of nominees with a mix of artists from the Asian-American, black, Latino, Native American and LGBT communities. Doing so will not only change the face of the Oscars, but it also will bring a sea change to the reach and power of our stories. Our media culture will be better for it.

Derrick Cameron is artistic director of Ghetto Film School, which focuses on film education.