At the 74th annual Academy Awards in 2002, Sidney Poitier—who became the first African American to win a best actor Oscar in 1964, for Lilies of the Field—received an honorary Oscar for his body of work. That same night, Halle Berry became the first African American to win best actress for Monster’s Ball, and Denzel Washington, following in Poitier’s footsteps, won best actor for Training Day.
All the hard work done by black trailblazers such as Hattie McDaniel, the first African American ever to win an Academy Award—for best supporting actress in 1940, for Gone With the Wind—seemed to have come to fruition.
It was “one magical, miraculous night of diversity,” said filmmaker Reggie Rock Bythewood.
The 87th annual Academy Awards, airing on Sunday, will be nothing like the 74th edition. This year’s ceremony was already labeled the whitest Oscars since 1998 after all 20 acting nominations went to white actors. And the snub of Selma director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo only served to reaffirm that Hollywood still has a diversity problem.
It really seemed as if Hollywood had turned a corner on this issue, especially after last year, when 12 Years a Slave won for best picture—the first time a feature film directed by a black man (British filmmaker Steve McQueen) had done so—and dark-skinned beauty Lupita Nyong’o—the winner for best supporting actress—was labeled the new Hollywood “it” girl. But this year’s nominations proves that there’s still work to be done.
One issue is how to deal with diversity within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose members vote for the Oscars. An in-depth Los Angeles Times study of AMPAS’ more than 6,000 members in 2013 showed that just 2 percent were black and almost 94 percent were white.
It’s an issue that Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who became the first African-American president of the academy in 2013, seems eager to address.
“In the last two years, we’ve made greater strides than we ever have in the past toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization through admitting new members and more inclusive classes of members,” Isaacs told the Associated Press shortly after this year’s nominations were announced. “And, personally, I would love to see and look forward to [seeing] a greater cultural diversity among all our nominees in all of our categories.”
Still, earning membership in the academy isn’t easy. Bythewood’s wife, filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood, lobbied to join the academy a few years after directing The Secret Life of Bees in 2008. She had to go through the normal process of requesting nominations from two current academy members, then being vetted and then waiting for approval by the academy’s board of governors. Despite getting nods from John Singleton, Lee Daniels and Steven Soderbergh, she was not accepted. Then, in 2014, Prince-Bythewood was invited to be a member, along with a number of other black industry professionals, including Nyong’o and Pharrell Williams.
Prince-Bythewood said in the end that getting into the academy “meant a lot, and now that I’m here, I’m very happy to have an opportunity to vote and have a say.”
It’s particularly meaningful this year because the song “Grateful,” from her film Beyond the Lights, is nominated for best original song, which means she got the chance to vote for it.
Her husband, who was a producer on Lights, was admitted into the academy soon after Isaacs became president. He said that he didn’t lobby to get in. Instead, he suspects that Isaacs’ efforts to diversify the academy may have played a role.
“I was voted in the same year that Ava DuVernay was voted into the academy, so that was nice,” he said. “There’s a lot of movement that needs to happen,” but he feels the academy seems to be heading in the right direction.
But changing the racial makeup of the academy is one thing. There also needs to be more high-quality movies from black filmmakers that attract the attention of Oscar voters.
And given that people of color buy a large share of the movie tickets, they deserve to see more representation on the big screen. In 2013, African Americans bought 13 percent of movie tickets (Hispanics make up 25 percent of moviegoing audiences, the largest of any ethnic group). If Hollywood can take money from people of color, it should be able to hire more filmmakers of color to tell a wider range of stories.
Prince-Bythewood said that over the last two years, “The diversity of product that’s being green-lit, but also the level of filmmaking, has been at a high level. Not just one or two [films], but four or five, and that’s what needs to keep happening.”
Both Bythewoods said that more also needs to be done to improve diversity throughout the industry. To that end, they are doing their part not just by creating content but also by trying to help the next generation of filmmakers. Prince-Bythewood is currently writing a pilot for Imagine Entertainment and Fox Entertainment. Bythewood is writing a script for Screen Gems, and when that’s over, he plans to direct a film he’s already written. While neither would go into details about these personal projects, both said that they will be films that star black actors and address the black experience.
“Reg and I have talked ever since we met about creating a black studio, and it’s absolutely a dream to have a fund where we can fund not only our films but also other filmmakers we know,” Prince-Bythewood said.