Last night was the annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, which brings together the best (most popular?) of television and film as decreed by actors in the business. My daughter cast her votes on Friday, so that ballot was fresh in my mind when I watched the show a day later. From the minute the show began, it was obvious that this wasn’t the Oscars, which has taken a lot of criticism for having no black/brown people in the mix for two years running (a couple of directing nods being the only exception). In fact, the first three awards showed how diverse this crowd was, as Uzo Aduba won for best Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series, Jeffrey Tambor (who plays a transgender female character) won for Male Actor in a Comedy Series, and Orange is the New Black—arguably the most diverse show on television and unarguably the most female-centric—won for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series. One black actor, one actor playing transgender, one ensemble that is equal parts white, black, Latina, fat, young with some older and Asian actors thrown in for good measure.
Of course, the hashtags instantly started flying, with #SAGsSoBlack and #SAGAwardsSoBlack trending on both diversity-friendly and disparaging posts. What I saw as a white person who has several levels of privilege while watching the awards handed out was an America I understand and embrace. The fact that we as a country seem to think our diversity is a bad thing never ceases to amaze me. When I look at other “better” nations worldwide, I always have to look at their racial makeup before offering my final verdict. Inevitably, the countries that “have it right” from a standard of living are a lot more homogeneous than the good ole U S of A. But all people in this country aren’t represented in all spheres, which is what the #OscarsSoWhite campaign is all about.
However, those applauding the SAG Awards for their diversity need to dig deeper, too. All three of the awards I mention (and many others throughout the evening) were for television. In fact, among the SAG film awards, only one nomination was for a person of color (Idris Elba, who won for Beasts of No Nation, along with his television lead drama role in Luther). The other film actor SAG Awards lined up closely to the Oscar awards, which has taken the brunt of criticism for its lack of diversity.
Which brings me to the point. The problem with these hashtag campaigns is they don’t really look at the larger issue, which is access. And diversity in the entertainment industry is not just about ethnicity, as Idris Elba recently explained regarding a lack of diversity in Britain (see! not just an American issue!):
Diversity in the modern world is more than just skin color: it’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and—most important of all, as far as I’m concerned—diversity of thought. Because if you have genuine diversity of thought among people making TV and film, then you won’t accidentally shut out any of the groups I just mentioned.
Obviously, television offers more access points not just for minority actors but for writers, showrunners, producers, directors and camera people, as well. There are probably multiple reasons for this, from niche marketing to costs of production. Next week I plan on delving into the whole nonsense that is pilot season, but even if a network shells out $10 million for a pilot (and that’s a very pricey pilot), that’s a fraction of what it costs to make a film. Thus, more chances are taken in television. More voices get the opportunity to be heard. Add in web series, and you have a truly diverse and representative selection of the majority of minorities (poverty is still a hard sell and you’ll only see it in documentaries).
So, back to awards season in general and the Oscars in specific. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) that votes for the Oscar nominees every year is predominantly white (94% of members as of 2012), male (77%) and old (86% are over the age of 50; 50% are age 62 or higher). Now, I’ve got nothing against old people, but they aren’t going to see a movie like Straight Outta Compton in the same way as a younger person would (regardless of the viewer’s ethnicity). Incidentally, Compton was left off the best picture nominees for an Oscar, despite being on the SAG Best Ensemble list (along with another “black” movie, Beasts of No Nation). The lunacy that is Oscar voting for Best Picture means that minority films (and by “minority” I mean any film that wouldn’t have obvious appeal to an old white man) are going to be underrepresented.
There are approximately 6,000 members of the AMPAS. If all 6,000 of them listed Compton on their ballot but not as their favorite film of the year (so lower down on the ballot), the movie wouldn’t get an Oscar nom. This is because when the AMPAS tried to make the Oscars more commercial by going to 10 nominees starting in 2010 the experiment failed. They subsequently went to a “rolling” number of nominees (no fewer than five, no more than 10) and stupidly decided that only nominees with the most #1 votes would be considered. So, in aggregate, a film that gets 500 votes for #1 and no additional votes will be nominated, but a film that receives a vote from every single member of the Academy not at #1 will not receive a nomination.
Now, do I think that Compton or Beasts received unanimous support lower down on the ballot? Of course not. But my illustration shows how films with more diversity can easily be missed among the nominees (and since this year only eight of the 10 potential nominee slots are filled, Compton and Beasts are the obvious missing nominees).
Another issue with the Oscars is that they never recognize comedies. Very occasionally an actor will get through (typically for a supporting role) but only “loosely defined” comedies—such as last year’s Birdman—get nominated for Best Picture. And although Tina Fey and Amy Poehler make a great argument for comedy being harder to pull off than drama, that’s not how the Academy decides its awards. I’m not saying that more minorities do comedy; just that fewer voices in general are represented by the Oscars.
Maybe this is why the actors at the guild awards always look so much happier, because they get it: A SAG Award is a genuine achievement, lacking much of the b.s. politicking that must go on in Oscarland. Ultimately, the Oscars aren’t really a representation of artistic diversity. Or of any diversity at all.
So my hope is that this larger conversation—along with the one about women’s pay scales as opposed to men’s in the industry—will offer up a more level playing field for all entertainment professionals. Because a robust story deserves the truth: that America is a melting pot. Maybe if more of our art reflected this, we—the people—would remember what truly made us a great nation and stop finger pointing at the wrong power mongers.