February 4, 2015
Last month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science faced some deservedly harsh criticism for announcing an all-white nominees list across all four acting categories. Apart from the social media anger over Selma‘s notable Oscar snubs (both director Ava DuVernay and lead actor David Oyelowo failed to make the cut), the white washed nominations also brought out some worrying truths about the state of diversity in Hollywood.
Namely: not all diverse narratives are equal. As Selma actor David Oyelowo succinctly puts it, the kinds of films that tend to be embraced by the Academy are ones that are filtered through the lens of ‘white guilt’: “So you have a very nice white person who holds black people’s hands through their own narrative.”
“Generally speaking, we, as black people, have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being at the center of our own narrative.”
The latest Vanity Fair ‘Holllyood’ cover is yet another reminder of the way tokenistic diversity is played out in the film industry. In a spread featuring 10 of the industry’s most promising talents, Oyelowo and Oscar Issac are the only actors of colour included in the Anna Leibovitz photoshoot.
Other celebrities who made the list were an all-white cast: Channing Tatum, Amy Adams, Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sienna Miller, and Miles Teller.
Compared to the magazine’s Hollywood Issue last year, which featured at least 50 percent non-white actors, there is a distinct sense that any progress made isn’t necessarily going to be sustained.
As writer Donna Dickens reveals in a comment piece for HitFix, “A little digging reveals some disappointing statistics. Most years, Vanity Fair dealt in tokenism with ten covers coming in at exactly one black actor (including 2015). There have been six years where no black actors even made the cut, only THREE that featured two, leaving the 2014 cover as the only time in Vanity Fair’s ‘Hollywood Issue’ history to showcase more than two black actors at once.”
If awards nominations and high profile lists like Vanity Fair’s offer any indication on where things are headed, it’s a pretty grim picture of 2015 so far. And while it’s true that there is far graver or more pressing racial inequality issues to address, pop culture representation still matters.
As Ruby Hamad points out in the aftermath of the #oscarssowhite backlash, “Don’t believe that tosh about this being “only the Oscars” and “only movies,” as if pop culture isn’t both a reflection and a driving force of the culture at large.”
And in 2015, publications like Vanity Fair should know better than to reduce actors of colour to Hollywood bit players.