After two years of 20 all-white acting nominations and subsequent protests, 2016 emerged as a banner time for diverse filmmaking. Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures all landed Best Picture nominations on Tuesday, along with acting nods for Viola Davis, Mahershala Ali, and Denzel Washington, among others. In total, seven actors and one director of color were nominated, tying the amount nominated in 2006, and that number grows if you include nominees in the cinematography and documentary feature categories. What’s more, Hidden Figures is a bona fide hit, earning $84 million so far and counting. So…great! That #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and social-media campaign worked, and we’re all good here, right? Not quite.
Certainly, impressive progress has been made in a short period of time. Last year, in response to public uproar, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences instituted dramatic changes to refresh the 6,687 voting members of its organization. It recruited 683 new members, many of them women and people of color—the most diverse class on record — and implemented new mandates that allowed the Academy to cut voters who had become inactive in the film industry.
The protest movement can also take credit for Fox’s effort to speed Hidden Figures into production last year and release it in December. It prompted filmmaker J.J. Abrams to seek out filmmakers of color for his upcoming projects. In it’s wake, Disney and Marvel both hired black filmmakers to shepherd expensive, high-profile films like A Wrinkle in Time (Ava DuVernay) and Black Panther (Ryan Coogler). And last January, at the height of the protest, Fox Searchlight plunked down $17.5 million on Nate Parker’s Sundance drama about slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, The Birth of a Nation — the film that was on track to run the Oscar table before it was derailed by the resurfacing of a 17-year-old rape case against Parker and his co-screenwriter Jean Celestin. (Parker was acquitted. Celestin’s conviction was overturned on appeal.)
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That’s a lot of rapid change, but it’s only a first step. “While we’ve had a spate of films that reflect the black experience, we still don’t have films that reflect the Latino experience, the Asian-American/Pacific Islander experience, the LGBTQIA experience,” says #OscarsSoWhite creator and entertainment journalist April Reign. “Let’s remember that #OscarsSoWhite is not just about race, and definitely not just about the black race. While we’ve had some forward movement, there is a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Reign launched #OscarsSoWhite from her living-room couch in 2015. At the time, the managing editor of BroadwayBlack.com was frustrated watching the Academy choose an all-white pack of Oscar nominees, a phenomenon that repeated itself again in 2016. Other minority voices joined her on social media and built the campaign into a powerful rallying cry.
Hollywood’s record on race continues to be uneven at best. While the Academy proclaimed Sidney Poitier its first black Best Actor winner back in 1964 and named In the Heat of the Night Best Picture for 1967, it has failed to consistently recognize the work of actors and filmmakers of color. Today, 15 years after Halle Berry became the first black woman to win Best Actress, she is still the only one, and the paucity of actors of other races who have been nominated is nothing short of shocking (see sidebar). “It’s unfortunate,” Reign says, “that in 2017, we are still talking about ‘firsts.’ ”
Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs is hopeful that her organization’s initiative to double its number of female and minority voters by 2020 will help correct the disparity. To get there, she’s urged her members — who nominate new members — to look outside their usual circle for potential applicants. “It’s not always what’s right in front of you,” she says. “We are asking everyone to extend that vision because there are a lot of talented people out there.”
Still, no matter how aggressively the Academy diversifies its membership, #OscarsSoWhite is ultimately about which movies get made, not just which ones get awards recognition. “This comes down to a very fundamental employment problem,” says Hidden Figures producer Donna Gigliotti. “Until the people making the [hiring and greenlight] decisions are people of color, until they are women, nothing is going to change.” Notably, A Wrinkle in Time director DuVernay and Blank Panther filmmaker Coogler are two of only a tiny number of directors of color currently directing big-budget studio movies. Both films fall under the Disney banner and are being led by black studio executives: Tendo Nagenda for Disney, and Nate Moore for Marvel.
Those two execs are in the vast minority. Walk into any greenlight meeting at a studio and you’re likely to see mostly white, male faces. But industry executives tell EW that #OscarsSoWhite has prompted studio heads to initiate conversations surrounding diversity, both within the exec suites and within some casting choices. It doesn’t happen all the time and it isn’t the top priority, but at least now it’s part of the discussion. And talent agents, who put their actors forward for roles, are feeling emboldened to promote their clients of color.
A few high-profile successes don’t hurt. The leads of the Star Wars films are multicultural with strong female roles. The Fast & Furious franchise continues to expand its global box office because its cast is so diverse.
The central question is whether these improvements — and this year’s nominations — are the beginning of real, long-term change or just a reaction to last year’s protests. Charles D. King, executive producer of Fences and a financier with an agenda to produce multicultural content through his company Macro Ventures, thinks the focus on diversity is permanent. “I don’t look at this as a cycle,” he says. “I believe studios, independent financiers, and the mini-majors are beginning to recognize the new majority and the shifting demographics. I believe we are going to continue to move forward.”
Others, however, think we’re still far from real parity. Franklin Leonard — a former studio production executive and the founder of the Black List, an annual compilation of the year’s best, unproduced screenplays — puts the end zone for equality in precise and concrete terms. “I won’t buy the idea that we’ve moved past this thing until it is no longer perceived as a risk to make a movie about a person of color,” he says, “or to hire a writer of color to write on a subject that has nothing to do with being that color.” In other words, #OscarsSoWhite isn’t going away anytime soon.