It started with a hashtag, and it’s turned into a juggernaut. The #OscarsSoWhite campaign has put Hollywood in the spotlight. It has led to headlines, talk of boycotts and a plan to change the procedures for Academy membership and Oscar voting.
It came from highlighting a simple fact. For the second year, all the nominees in the acting category at the Academy Awards are white. There are nominations for two films with an African-American focus – the Rocky reboot Creed and the rap biopic Straight Outta Compton – but they’ve gone to a white actor (Sylvester Stallone) and white screenwriters.
Yet for many – including those closely identified with the campaign – the focus is not solely on omission. It’s also about opportunity. The hashtag was started by April Reign, managing editor of a theatre website called BroadwayBlack.com, and this is a point she’s keen to emphasise.
“The point of #OscarsSoWhite is not that there needs to be a person of colour in every category,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “The point is we need to make sure that the best and brightest are given the opportunity to audition and write and direct.”
This is also brought out in a different way by British actor Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther) who had been widely tipped for a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his role in child soldier drama Beasts of No Nation.
On Monday, Elba addressed the British Parliament on diversity. In a wide-ranging speech, one of the things he talked about was always being asked to read for “the black male” character or “the athletic type”. He’d see a script with a character described as “a man with a twinkle in his eye”, knowing that this was assumed to be a role for a white actor. “And,” he said, “I wanna play the character with a twinkle in his eye.”
For producer Darren Dale, of Blackfella Films, Elba’s point makes perfect sense and the Oscar debate has highlighted something that’s been on his mind recently. “It’s a really good time for us to focus on it,” he says. “When you walk down the street, our community is so diverse, and I don’t think you can see that on Australian drama at all.”
Dale’s productions include First Australians, Mabo and The Tall Man; he’s won AACTA Awards for the drama series Redfern Now and the children’s TV series Ready for This.
He cites as a model Screen Australia’s Indigenous programs, and the support given to Indigenous filmmaking by the SBS and ABC. “I’ve seen how it can work, and it’s been playing on my mind, I’ve been thinking, how do we translate that to other areas?”
“If I was an Indian-Australian filmmaker, I’d be thinking, ‘where are we represented?’ and I think it’s a really reasonable question, there’s a healthy expectation that you should see yourself on screen.”
For actor Bali Padda, co-chairman of Actors’ Equity’s diversity committee, there is plenty of work to be done. The committee was formed two years ago, he says, in response to a range of issues about the lack of diversity in casting in Australian theatre, film and TV.
One thing he would like to emphasise, he says, “is that it’s by no means a whinge fest. We’re not here to shame people or to bitch and moan and complain. We are actors and we would love to work.”
One of the committee’s first initiatives has been a campaign for scriptwriters and playwrights to include on their scripts a statement encouraging anyone producing or directing the work to consider accurately representing the diverse culture of Australia. It’s had widespread industry support, he says.
Beyond that, he says, “What we’re also aiming to do is come up with solutions or business cases and proposals that will highlight the positives and benefits of having a diverse casting process.
“So we don’t just look at the faces that you would see on TV or on stage or on the screen but also the people behind it. If we don’t have a diverse range of people creating stories – writers, producers and directors – then the characters written for the Indian or Middle Eastern or whatever becomes a bit tokenistic. And that’s not representative either.”
To Fiona Cameron, chief operating officer of Screen Australia, the Oscar controversy is the chance to begin a conversation. “Unless you start talking about it, the status quo continues, and sometimes people just have to think twice.”
Looking at the Australian example, she says, “The commitment to Indigenous filmmaking has had bipartisan support and it’s done extraordinary things. When you think of the alumni, it’s quite amazing.” She cites films such as Samson and Delilah, Bran Nue Dae and The Sapphires, movies that have been critical successes, box office hits and award winners.
Screen Australia has made recent initiatives to increase gender equity in filmmaking. Cameron says they are also working with ABC and SBS on a research proposal that explores the representation of gender and cultural diversity on TV drama.
“We want to look at the statistics, analyse them, show a baseline and then work with our partners to work out what we can do – maybe a first step will be a development fund for multicultural projects,” Cameron says.
For Dale, it’s important that filmmakers embrace diversity now. “We don’t need to be pointing fingers, let’s all be proactive and take leadership roles.”
Among the local films being made or released this year, there are several with a diverse cast or subject matter. They include Spear, featuring the Indigenous company Bangarra Dance Theatre; Jasper Jones, directed by Bran Nue Dae’s Rachel Perkins; Joe Cinque’s Consolation, an adaptation of Helen Garner’s book; Down Under, a black comedy about the Cronulla riots; Goldstone, an offbeat mystery from director Ivan Sen; Ali’s Wedding, based on the experiences of actor Osamah Sami; and Lion, the tale of an adopted Indian boy brought up in Australia who starts to search for his Indian family.
Dale says that Indigenous films have been embraced by older audiences, but he’s keen to see a commitment to younger viewers. His show for the ABC, Ready for This, focused on five Indigenous children, is being considered for a second series, and he says: “It’s important to experience diversity when you’re young.”
As for Padda, he’d like to see a future in which there is no need for a committee lobbying for diversity. “My personal measure of success is that we won’t need to have these kinds of conversations again.”