State of the Industry: From #OscarsSoWhite to ‘Moonlight’


Though the state of the industry has long been exclusionary when it comes to people of color, 2016 saw a greater awareness of racism in Hollywood. The year began with #OscarsSoWhite and ended with a number of breakout films featuring actors of color.

After the second consecutive year of all acting nominations going to white actors, social media became the major forum for expressing outrage. Early this year, Spike Lee announced on Facebook that he would not attend the Oscars ceremony, prompting the Academy to announce immediate changes to its membership, whose glaring homogeneity (91% white and 76% male) was widely seen as the source of bias. In June 2016, the Academy invited a record 683 movie industry professionals to join its membership ranks–41% were people of color.

While #OscarsSoWhite shone a light on the industry’s race problem early in the year, diversity remained elusive. Marvel and DC Comic films (Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Dr. Strange) all featured white male leads with just a smattering of white women and people of color. The next film led by a superhero of color (Black Panther) won’t be released until 2018.

2016 also saw its share of whitewashing. Gods of Egypt featured a nearly all-white cast playing Egyptian characters. White actors also portrayed two Afghan characters in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Dr. Strange courted controversy when white British actress Tilda Swinton was cast to play “The Ancient One,” originally a Tibetan character. Even entire cinematic cities were whitewashed. The racial makeup of Los Angeles is 49% Latina/o, 28% White, 11% Asian, and 9% Black. However, watching Los Angeles-set films like Hail Caesar, Café Society, and La La Land would have you believe the city’s denizens are completely white.

Brenton Thwaites in the whitewashed 'Gods of Egypt'
Brenton Thwaites in ‘Gods of Egypt’

Besides whitewashing, directors also openly refused to cast actors of color. Tim Burton, when asked why Miss Peregrine’s House of Peculiar Children had a nearly all-white cast, expressed offense at intentionally casting people of color, which he found “politically correct.” Such biases prevented actors of color from gaining full access to film roles in 2016.

Despite some dismal steps backward for the industry, there were also a handful of successful studio and independent films featuring casts of color. Disney produced three box office hits that starred people of color. The Jungle Book featured a diverse cast including Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Giancarlo Esposito, and the introduction of Indian American actor Neel Sethi as “Mowgli.” Disney’s Moana was the company’s first animated film to star a Pacific Islander princess, voiced by native Hawaiian actor, Auli’i Cravalho with the addition of Dwayne Johnson as a Polynesian demigod. Finally, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, from Disney-acquired Lucasfilm, boasted a diverse cast with a white female protagonist, played by Felicity Jones, and actors of color Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Forest Whitaker, and Riz Ahmed.

Right: Moana, voiced by Auli'i Cravalho, in a scene from the animated film, "Moana." via Disney
Right: Moana, voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, in a scene from the animated film, “Moana.” via Disney

There were also a significant number of films showcasing African Americans, especially in leading roles. The year started off with a bidding war over Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation that resulted in the highest offer ever made at a Sundance festival. Though the film was eventually overshadowed by Parker’s past accusations of rape, it sparked a heightened interest in Black films.

Fences (starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis), Hidden Figures (starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe), Loving (starring Ruth Negga), and Moonlight (starring an ensemble cast including Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris), all garnered early Oscar buzz. These films demonstrated the breadth and depth of Black lives–featuring dysfunctional and loving families, and heroes who defied odds. Moonlight, the year’s breakout independent film, has already won several awards and garnered SAG Awards and Golden Globes nominations.

Alex R. Hibbert and Mahershala Ali in Moonlight / A24

Despite demonstrating immense talent, actors of color remain marginalized in the cinematic world. This is particularly the case for Latina/o and Asian American actors who are severely underrepresented in films. The erasure of people of color in film, coupled with stereotyped cinematic representations, can fuel racial fears in our country. To foster racial inclusion and tolerance, Hollywood must take up the cultural mantle of diverse hiring and storytelling practices.

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