Growing up, I had a passion to act in theatre. When I was 12, I aspired to win an Academy Award. It did not take long to realize, however, that this dream was not something that I could really achieve. I watched the Oscars; I have seen the actors who win and the roles that they play. I looked in the mirror and only saw one thing: my race. I am Asian, and I was pre-programmed to think that I could only be a martial arts master or a racially insensitive token character. I watched films knowing that there is not one person of my race who is at the same level as Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Colin Firth, Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, and so many others. What chance did I stand, as an aspiring young actor, to be not the next Jackie Chan but the next Eddie Redmayne?
The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite has been trending since the announcement of the 2016 Oscar nominees. The Academy’s nomination of only white actors and actresses, for the second year in a row, caused an outrage.
Dr. Bill Boles, an English professor who also teaches film and writing screenplays and plays here at Rollins, thinks that the diversity problem is not a result of the decisions of the Academy, but rather where the films come from.
“While the movement has gotten a lot of media attention and headlines in major papers, they really are going after a group that has no authority or control over the movies that are made,” said Boles. “The Oscars really can’t do anything about who is cast in movies and whether the film is diverse enough. The people greenlighting the projects are, no doubt, white and the only diverse actors they want to see in films are named Denzel, Samuel, Will, Morgan, Chiwetel—maybe Idris, and most of them are getting up in age. They aren’t interested in hiring female directors or directors of color. It’s really not the fault of the Oscars. It’s the people with the money.”
Boles is not alone in this idea. Casey Casteel ‘16, a prominent student actor in the theater department here at Rollins, also shares the same sentiments with Dr. Boles.
“I don’t think the Academy is to blame, I think the issues lie with what movies are being produced and the casting directors for movies. Off the top of my head, the new movie coming out February 26, Gods of Egypt, I believe to be cast very unfairly…This sits as one of hundreds of examples of ‘popular’ big name actors being cast to portray roles that should go to those that fit the description,” said Casteel.
Dr. Hilary Cooperman, a recent addition to the theater department, thinks that there is still improvement to be done in the Academy itself, and how criteria are measured.
“The criteria with which nominations are made should also be defined and more transparent,” said Cooperman. “An older, white, wealthy man may have a very different response to a movie that features an experience he relates to in comparison with a younger woman of color who is working to make ends meet as an acting instructor. Both may be excellent judges of talent, but their experiences and what they wish to see represented and recognized may be vastly different. The Academy needs to make a concerted effort to not only be representative of the racial diversity in this country, but also to represent diverse experiences, socio-economic levels and overall backgrounds.”
She continued, “I read that they are working towards diversifying their membership to include 14 percent people of color and 48 percent women by 2020 (“Oscars Reflect Pervasive Racism,” Uwire, 25 Jan 2016). In my opinion, this is a very weak attempt to improve the diversity of the Academy and will not achieve much impact on who is nominated due to the other factors in all facets of the movie-making industry mentioned above.”
While prominent figures like director Spike Lee (Malcom X, 25th Hour) are boycotting the Oscars, what is the theater department on campus doing to respond to the need for diversity in theatrical entertainment here at Rollins College?
“The theatre department tries its best to pick plays that feature strong women protagonists, female playwrights, and plays that offer a variety of different viewpoints and ways of thinking. We do our best to cater to the demographic of our department and are always striving to choose plays that give our actors equal opportunity to participate and get involved,” said Casteel.
According to the theatre department, they have recently added classes with more diverse content. Examples of this include “Global Theater”. There are also new courses within the Rollins Foundation in the Liberal Arts, which look at issues such as “Shakespeare’s A.R.S.E”, which focuses on racism and sexism in Shakespeare’s time.
“Rollins theatre is doing well in terms of diversity on and off the stage, but it can get better. I think our professors in the department want to see us become more diverse and are taking the steps to make it happen. But the only way it will get there is if our school gets better at diversifying its student body,” said Alexandria Crawford ‘16, a theatre major.
While the future is murky for the film industry, I hope that the next generation of actors, directors, and producers will push for diversity in film. The future actors and directors that come from this college and other colleges around the world will help shape the next era of the entertainment industry.I never felt like I had the chance to become something big because of what I saw in the mirror. I hope that the next generations of actors, both on campus and in Hollywood, see talent and passion, rather than color and ethnicity.