Renee Tajima-Peña, a documentary filmmaker and professor of Asian American studies at UCLA who was nominated for an Oscar in 1987 for her work on the documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin?, said the civil-rights movement of the 20th century indelibly shaped how the country, and by extension, Hollywood, thinks about race. But it’s an anachronistic mindset. “Now, on the ground, when people think of race, they think of this whole range of white, black, brown, yellow, red, and all the nuances and layers,” she said.
Expanding the Oscars discussion beyond black actors and filmmakers doesn’t diminish them or the unique challenges they face. After all, their relative visibility hasn’t translated into anything close to decent representation throughout the industry. Though blacks are slightly over-represented in terms of Oscar wins in acting categories, for example, they’re under-represented in directing (especially black women), according to a USC study. As The Economist noted:
These are the numbers that critics of Hollywood should be most concerned about, along with the dearth of top roles for Hispanic and Asian actors. Best Actor nominations and wins—in which black actors have done decently, 2015 and 2016 excepted—seem to be the wrong target.
I spoke with several people of color who have worked for decades as producers, directors, writers, actors, and agents in the film industry to get a better sense of how they’ve dealt with Hollywood’s whitewashing problem over the years, and what they make of the situation today.
Involving all minority groups in the mainstream diversity discussion is necessary, but it also raises complicated questions about the merits and limits of solidarity. To what extent should people of color focus on increasing opportunities for all people of color, versus their own communities?
After all, the systemic issues in Hollywood that hurt black directors are the same ones that make it hard for Asian Americans to get top film roles, or for Native Americans to receive non-stereotypical portrayals. As Boyd told me, “When you say that Hollywood is overwhelmingly white and male that’s to the exclusion of everything else.” But blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans also have different histories in this country, which means different challenges and advantages. Lumping everyone in the same category raises the real risk of ignoring those differences rather than better understanding them.
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In the midst of the #OscarsSoWhite discussion, the Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez started a similar hashtag of her own—#MovementMondays. In an Instagram post praising the work of Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina, Rodriguez placed part of the blame for the lack of Latinos in Hollywood on Latino viewers themselves.
I am told time and time again, “Latinos don’t watch Latino Movies. Latinos don’t support each other,” and sadly that is true ... If you want to see us represented on film and TV, if you want to see Latinos nominated for Oscars, we NEED to support one another. The industry sees money, the excuse can’t be racism.
Asking Latinos to support the work of other Latinos is a noble and practical request: Relative to the U.S. population as a whole, Latinos go to the movies more than any other racial or ethnic group, and Hispanics in the U.S. boast roughly $1.5 trillion in buying power. But though the Latino population grew more than 43 percent from 2000 to 2010, there’s “a narrower range of stories and roles, and fewer Latino lead actors in the entertainment industry today, than there were 70 years ago,” according to a 2015 report from Columbia University.