To Resist Trump's Rhetoric, Hollywood Must Diversify

By Da'Shawn Mosley 12-21-2016
Image via Disney - ABC Television Group/flickr.com

On Dec. 19, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) announced that, from 2019 onward, any films that want to be considered for two of the academy’s most popular awards — Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer — must meet a criteria of diversity, reports the Guardian.

The films must be diverse in two of the following four ways:

  1. its onscreen characters and themes are diverse, in terms of ethnicity, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, and/or disability;
  2. its crew and senior leadership are diverse in those same terms;
  3. its production is geared toward generating substantial job experience and career opportunities for diverse staff members;
  4. its release to the general public is geared toward reaching diverse and under-served audiences.

This may seem like a lot for a film to do, but it’s not. There are so many qualified people of color, LGBTQ people, low-income people, and disabled people who are looking for a chance to join the film industry and utilize their talents, for the good of making great art.

Likewise, there are so many people in the world who want to see diverse stories told onscreen, and so many people who want to see both onscreen and behind-the-scenes people who look like them and share their various identities.

But there aren’t a lot of studio execs and directors who want to produce these sort of films. There also aren’t a lot of film award organizations and academies that want to recognize those films.

It was as recent as Jan. 14 that, here in the U.S., the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) announced their nominations for the year’s Oscars, revealing a list of names that barely included any people from under-represented groups. Straight, white men dominated almost every category they could, and although this was made fun of by the ceremony’s host, the comedian Chris Rock, it was evident to people outside of the Academy that this was a very serious issue. Eventually, the Academy recognized this as well.

On Jan. 22, the Academy announced that it was increasing the diversity of its voting body, giving membership to people from under-represented groups and diversifying its executive and board committees.

However, with its latest announcement about diversity, BAFTA has outdone the AMPAS. And yet, even what BAFTA has done is not enough. BAFTA covers both film and television, simultaneously serving as the British equivalent of both the Oscars and the Primetime Emmy Awards, but its latest diversity initiative only addresses its nation’s film industry, not its television industry. Furthermore, the initiative is only a corrective for a lack of diversity onscreen and behind-the-scenes, not a corrective for a lack of diversity in the voting body that decides which films will be nominated for an award. What BAFTA has done is huge, and is a step in the right direction. But, for diversity to continue to increase, a combination of BAFTA’s approach and the AMPAS’ approach needs to take shape.

This is important because of the critical role that the entertainment industry plays in our lives and our society. Media shows us how our world is, but it also projects to us how our world could be. In this way, our media is prophetic. Its influence is vast.

Let us not forget the impact that D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation had on America when it was released in 1915. An adaptation of the novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, there’s little doubt in my mind that the film’s racist depictions of African Americans and affirming depictions of Klansmen formed and hardened the discriminatory beliefs of many white people in the U.S., making them further believe that black people were undeserving of fairness, respect, and freedom. The Birth of a Nation is a prime example of why we need new stories, told from the perspective of identities that are generally ignored and denigrated.

But if you need recent proof of the importance of this issue, look no further than the present state of our world’s politics. The election of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the xenophobia of Marine Le Pen and other world leaders is a sign of global backlash against diversity, as the world’s population becomes less majorly white and more varied. As our politicians spew dangerous rhetoric and implement damaging policies, the media must step up to undercut their hate and remind non-marginalized groups of the humanity of their diverse peers. Otherwise, the dangerous words of Trump and others will become nothing less than fulfilled prophecies.

So I’m calling on BAFTA, the AMPAS, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, and other organizations of their caliber to make even bolder strides toward acknowledging and facilitating diversity in the entertainment industry. I had a deeply moving experience when I saw the recently released film Moonlight, a tale of a young, black, gay boy growing up in the housing projects of Miami. Watching the main character’s life unfold onscreen, I recognized myself in the character and the dark shade of many of the actors’ skin. Later, when I researched the film, in preparation of going to see it for a second time, I also recognized myself in the film’s crew and creative team.

And when I discussed the film with people of non-marginalized groups, I was delighted to hear that otherness didn’t keep them from watching the film. Several of my straight friends and my white friends went to see it in theatres and they were also moved by its narrative and felt its power.

We need more experiences like that. Some of us need to see, and some of us need to be seen.

I can’t see all of us getting to the Promised Land by any other way.

Da’Shawn Mosley is assistant editor of Sojourners.

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