Photo: New Directors
Introduction and Context
The #OscarsSoWhite controversy was really not that long ago. For those who have forgotten, the hashtag started as a response to the 2015 Academy Award nominations, where only two people of color were recognized in the major categories.
While this was a uniquely stacked year for movies (Damien Chazelle’s ‘Whiplash’, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s ‘Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’, and Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’ remain some of my favorite works of the past decade), many cried foul on 2015’s show for a lack of diverse representation, which notably excluded Ava Duvernay’s Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic ‘Selma’ from contention in Best Director for Duvernay and Best Actor for David Oyelowo. Further discussions around systemic inequity have come about following this past summer’s protests after the on-camera shootings of unarmed Black men by police, which have transferred over to Hollywood representation as well.
The ensuing social media drama resulted in a larger conversation around representation in Hollywood, with calls for more recognition for people of color in the major categories, as well as Hollywood itself, asking for increased representation in positions both behind and in front of the camera. The Oscars responded the following year by naming Chris Rock the host of the 2016 show, but many saw this as a bone being thrown to the audience, and not representative of any legitimate change. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has increased the number of younger, more diverse faces within its ranks in recent years, but the majority of voters and recognized works within the Academy remain overwhelmingly old, white, cis-male, and straight.
However, within the last few years, there has been an increased focus on and acclaim for diverse creatives within Hollywood. While many of these people have yet to be rewarded for their work in the form of major awards (with the exception of Barry Jenkins winning for 2016’s ‘Moonlight’ and Mahershala Ali’s Best Supporting Actor awards for that film and for 2019’s controversial race-drama ‘Green Book’), these faces have grown increasingly prominent in the eyes of those interested in the entertainment industry, and many have received mainstream recognition and box office success for their projects. I have always been of the opinion that the power of Hollywood lies within its ability to tell unique stories from interesting perspectives, and the creatives responsible for these stories are increasingly more diverse than ever before.
New Directorial Elites
If we are to look at the premier writers and directors of the last one hundred years of cinema, we are likely to be overwhelmed by straight, white men. Not to say that these artists are necessarily bad or problematic (though some most certainly are), but the range of the types of people in that upper echelon and the kinds of stories being told is typically quite limited, especially if we’re talking about Hollywood pre-the 1970’s “New Cinema” renaissance. However, this is simply not the case anymore. Some of the greatest and most talented people in the business now are people of diverse backgrounds, in terms of race, gender, and sexuality.
Directors like Ryan Coogler (a Black man responsible for bringing the biggest Black superhero ever to life in ‘Black Panther’, as well as creating numerous excellent Michael B. Jordan roles with 2013’s ‘Fruitvale Station’ and 2015’s ‘Creed’), comedian-turned-horror auteur Jordan Peele (2017’s ‘Get Out’), the aforementioned Barry Jenkins (a Black, gay man, known for ‘Moonlight’ and the 2018 James Baldwin adaptation ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’), and Ava DuVernay (a Black woman, who also made one of the most seminal pieces on the prison industrial complex in 2016’s “13th”), have made some of the most profound pieces of cinematic art in the last decade.
Jenkins’s Moonlight even won over an incredibly strong Best Picture category that included Damien Chazelle’s ‘Whiplas’” follow-up ‘La La Land’ (a heavy favorite, and even a reported winner, due to a very public live snafu involving an incorrect reading of the envelope), as well as Denis Villeneuve’s heady sci-fi masterpiece ‘Arrival’.
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There are also more prominent directors of Asian descent now than ever before, with Lulu Wang (2019’s ‘The Farewell’), Lee Isaac Chung (2020’s ‘Minari’), Cary Fukunaga (2015’s ‘Beasts of No Nation’), Chloe Zhao (2020’s ‘Nomadland’), and Bong Joon-Ho (2019’s ‘Parasite’) all receiving widespread acclaim, as the Asian audience continues to become increasingly important to box office success.
Joon-Ho notably won Best Director and Best Picture for ‘Parasite’, an enormous breakthrough for foreign-language films, and Zhao has been handed the reigns to one of the newest Marvel franchises in the upcoming ‘Eternals’ film, with a stacked cast that includes Angelina Jolie, Kit Harrington, Kumail Nanjiani, Barry Keoghan, Brian Tyree Henry, and a rumored appearance by pop superstar Harry Styles. This is great news for fans of blockbusters, although it is troubling that South Asian, Pacific Islander, and Middle Eastern directors continue to be relatively shut out of mainstream Hollywood.
Latinx directors have perhaps seen the most recognition from Awards shows, with Guillermo del Toro (‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, 2006), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (‘The Revenant’, 2015), Alfonso Cuaron (‘Roma’, 2018), Andres Muschietti (‘It’, 2017), and Robert Rodriguez (‘From Dusk Till Dawn’, 1996) having remained important figures behind the camera for years now, as they still continue to release essential and critically-acclaimed work. However, there is room for more Latina representation behind the camera, as female directors continue to struggle to break into the male-dominated industry.
Speaking of which, Patty Jenkins has recently had herself another huge commercial hit with HBO Max’s ‘Wonder Woman 1984’, continuing the upward trajectory of her career, as well as female directors in general, as Kathryn Bigelow (‘The Hurt Locker’, 2008), Greta Gerwig (‘Lady Bird’, 2017), and Jennifer Kent (‘The Babadook’, 2014) have also seen increased success and recognition for their work.
LGBTQ+ representation behind the camera has increased as well, with the likes of Luca Guadagnino (2017’s ‘Call Me By Your Name’) and once again, Barry Jenkins, along with Tom Ford, being seen as increasingly important faces for the community. While these people are certainly significant, out LGBTQ+ people remain relative outsiders within Hollywood, as controversies like “gayface” have prevented those within the community from being cast in prominent gay or trans roles, with those roles often going to straight actors portraying gay characters (like Jared Leto in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ or Armie Hammer in ‘Call Me By Your Name’), hence the term “gayface.”
This lack of accuracy in representation extends to disabled people as well, as they have also been repeatedly shut out from portraying disabled characters in favor of more prominent actors.
All in all, it is becoming more and more apparent that Hollywood is shifting away from the straight, white, and cis-male directors that have shaped much of the industry’s history to this point, and towards a Hollywood elite that reflects the tastes and sensibilities of the increasingly diverse and global moviegoing population. This extends to acting as well, as Michaela Coel, Jason Momoa, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Steven Yeun, Michael B. Jordan, Ana de Armas, Mahershala Ali, Kumail Nanjiani, Awkwafina, Elliot Page, Dwayne Johnson, and others have all seen their respective profiles rise in recent years as attention turns towards diverse people in the industry.
While these developments are encouraging, there is still much work to be done in terms of accurately reflecting these people’s experiences, but it seems likely that the next Stanley Kubrick or Leonardo DiCaprio will not be a straight white man, but rather someone who reflects the racial and sexual melting pot that is the world in the 21st Century.
By Patrick Nash
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