By J.A. Klyng, The Philosophy Nerd and Guest Columnist
Since 1927, four non-white men have won the academy award for best actor: Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, and Sidney Poitier. Additionally, only one non-white woman has ever won best actress: Halle Berry. In that time period, there have not been any non-heterosexual/non-cis winners of these awards. The only known gay nominee has been Sir Ian McKellen.
Why is this the case? In a country where artists of color have found success in other forms of entertainment, why does the film industry seem to lag? It is sometimes noted in political philosophy that theory precedes action. As it were, the film industry may still be in a nascent stage of progress on the whole.
The conservative (or realist) response to this observation is that the goal of the film industry is to produce a product which the greatest percentage of US citizens identify with. According to the 2012 U.S. Census, 78% of the United States consider themselves white. The 2012 U.S. Census also informs us that 3.8% of the population consider themselves non-heterosexual/non-cis.
This is all the evidence necessary to support the conservative response – white cis heterosexuals identify predominantly with other white cis heterosexuals. Thus, it is no surprise that the film industry predominately features actors like Tom Hanks, Jeff Bridges, and Russell Crowe. The conservative position asserts that the inclusion of some non-white actors matches up with the current US population. Ultimately it’s a numbers game and the conservative perspective identifies the film industry’s practices as financially successful and offers evidence for why this is the case.
But there are those who believe that film should be a progressive art form. You might say this only applies to film as an artistic object. That the film viewing experience may incite an individual to have a greater sense of racial and LGBT equality does not correlate with the percentage of non-white leads. When we begin to look at directors, the numbers become even more alarming. Over a course of eighty-six years, only one woman has ever won best director. There are zero African-Americans who have ever won the award, and only two have ever been nominated.
There are some positive inferences which may suggest the film industry may be undergoing some changes. Since 2000, there have been three African-American men who won best actor, one non-white woman who won best actress, and one woman who won best director. This is a good sign, and a necessary one if film wants to continue down a progressive path.
The occurrence of diversity in regards to lead roles or directors winning an academy award may not be too far off. Certainly there will be the ignorant bigots flaming the internet when it does happen. They will rant as if someone had removed a vital organ and spew an excessive amount of toxic dribble towards anyone who will listen. But this will always happen when change is introduced. So we can see the recent affairs in the academy as a sign of progress and equality. There is surely a long way to go.
**Remember, there is nothing more American than discourse. You are always welcome to post your comments, thoughts, and questions below. Feedback is always appreciated!