Oscars Diversity Drought Ends But SF State Professors Have Mixed Reactions



The nominees for the 2017 Academy Awards were announced last week, and there was one thing missing compared to last year: backlash over the lack of diversity of the Oscar nominees.


But San Francisco State University professors have mixed reactions to the progress made by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


Between 2015 and 2016 all the nominees in the lead and supporting actor categories were white, which inspired the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and a boycott of the awards show.


This year, seven of the 20 nominees in the acting categories are actors of color. And that’s not all.


The Best Picture category included films that examined Black identity and history, including “Fences,” based on an August Wilson play; “Hidden Figures,” the story of black women working at NASA; and “Moonlight,” which follows a Black man living in the Miami housing projects through three stages of his life.


People of color were also nominated in the Best Director and Documentary Feature categories and made history by snagging nominations for cinematography and editing for the first time.


The Academy has responded to the backlash by launching a five-year drive to diversify its membership, which now includes SF State Assistant Professor of Cinema Cheryl Dunye. Dunye is the writer and director of the award-winning film “The Watermelon Woman,” the first African American, lesbian feature film ever made.


As a member of the Academy, Dunye voted this year for the first time.


“The new initiative, the induction of a whole new bunch of members, you could feel the change. You could feel the push, but it is a push,” Dunye said.


“It’s not easy, especially since so many national and international events have taken priority over diversifying our movies. There’s a challenge now around entertainment and what people want to be entertained by. There’s a lot of safety and retreat. It will be very interesting to see what wins this year; is it the past or the present?”


As a first-time voter, Dunye said it’s encouraging to see changes taking place in Hollywood.


“We’re really seeing the studio system and the Hollywood independent system shift. And there’s hope around that.”


SF State Professor of Cinema Celine Shimizu said there’s a general sense that progress is being made.


News outlets have provided empirical evidence by tracking nominees of color from previous years, she said, but measuring progress in this way doesn’t reflect the fact that thematically the Oscars, and Hollywood remain extremely white.


“Look beyond the award numbers to all the movies that receive theatrical distribution. How many are set among the lives of non-white people of color? Negligibly few,” Shimizu said.


“Thematically, Hollywood can barely imagine a world in which people of color are more than tokens. Yet if Hollywood is so against the rising tide of exclusion and white nationalism that has been on the rise in our country, then shouldn’t their own vision of the world be more diverse and inclusive?”


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