The slate of acting nominees at the Oscars this weekend is the most diverse in the awards show’s history: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Andra Day, Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Leslie Odom Jr., Steven Yeun, Riz Ahmed, and Yuh-Jung Youn are all in the running. That milestone is being celebrated, and rightly so. But it remains to be seen if, having been recognized by the Academy, these actors are actually going to benefit from it.
White actors typically enjoy stratospheric, career-altering success on the heels of an Oscar nomination or win—but historically, that hasn’t always been the case for people of color, as USA Today recently reported. For white actors, Academy recognition quickly leads to starring roles, both in big-budget blockbusters and prestige dramas. For actors of color recognized by the Academy, landing those roles typically takes much more time—if they ever land them at all.
Take, for instance, the career trajectory of Sophie Okonedo, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the 2005 Oscars for her performance in Hotel Rwanda. Over the next four years, she played supporting characters in five movies, most of which were critical and commercial flops. (The sole exception was 2008’s The Secret Life of Bees). Five years after her Oscar nomination, she finally starred in a movie: Skin, released in 2009. But the film wasn’t widely released; in the U.S., it only showed at a limited number of art-house theaters.
Over a decade later, she still hasn’t. Aside from Skin, Okonedo’s film career has been entirely confined to supporting roles.
A useful comparison, perhaps, is the career arc of Natalie Portman, who—just like Okonedo—was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 2005. (She earned the nod for her performance in Closer, her breakout role.) That same year, Portman starred in V for Vendetta. In 2006, she starred in Goya's Ghosts. In 2008, she starred in The Other Boleyn Girl. While those films might not have been hits, in 2010, she starred in Black Swan, a critical darling that won her Best Actress at the Oscars. That’s not to mention the plethora of supporting roles she nabbed during that five-year period, or the many films she’s starred in since.
One could argue that age, not race, might be the reason Portman went on to star in so many movies while Okonedo didn’t: Portman was 23 in 2005, and Okonedo was 36. But even when age isn’t a factor, you still see the same disparity at play. Lupita Nyong’o was 31 when she won Best Supporting Actress for her performance in 12 Years a Slave, in 2014. Jessica Chastain was around the same age—34—when she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in The Help, in 2012. For both actresses, those were breakout moments.
After Nyong’o won an Oscar, it took her five years to finally land a starring role, in 2019’s Us. After Chastain was nominated for an Oscar, she starred in five films over the next five years: Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Interstellar (2014), A Most Violent Year (2014), Miss Sloane (2016), and Molly’s Game (2017).
All too often, actresses of color recognized by the Academy—like Precious’ Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique, Hustle and Flow’s Taraji P. Henson, or Loving’s Ruth Negga—don’t attain the level of success in film that their white counterparts do. What success they do have doesn’t come as quickly.
“For Black actors, yes, you get more recognition. But the question is, are there vehicles for you?”
That same disparity applies to male actors, too. In 2014, Chiwetel Ejiofor earned a Best Actor nomination for his performance in 12 Years a Slave. It took five years for him to star in another film: 2019’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which he also wrote and directed. In 2015, Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor for his performance in The Theory of Everything. Within four months, he had been cast as the lead of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Compare the careers of any two actors recognized by the Academy in or around the same year, white and non-white—George Clooney and Forest Whitaker (2006), Daniel Day Lewis and Javier Bardem (2007)—and you’ll find that white actors land more starring roles, and land them more quickly, than their non-white counterparts.
It’s difficult to say for certain why that’s the case. But according to Darnell Hunt—the Dean of Social Sciences at UCLA, who co-authors the university’s annual Hollywood Diversity Report—the reason likely has to do with opportunity. For actors of color to translate Oscars recognition into career success, they need leading parts to play. But Hunt explained that most film roles, and especially leading film roles, are written to be played by white actors.
“There are more opportunities for the typical white actor, period. But if you win an Oscar, the world is your oyster,” he said. “For Black actors, yes, you get more recognition. But the question is, are there vehicles for you? Is someone producing a film where you would be a good choice?”
Historically, the answer has too often been no. In 2011, just 10.5 percent of the year’s top 200 films (measured by box-office revenue) featured actors of color in lead roles, according to UCLA’s 2021 Hollywood Diversity Report. That figure ticked up over the next few years, but only haltingly: 16.7 percent in 2013, 13.6 percent in 2015, and 19.8 percent in 2017.
After a white actor gets an Oscar nod or win, a glut of potential parts awaits them. But Oscar winners and nominees of color may not be considered a “fit” for many—or any—of the roles in that exact same pool. That’s due in part to a lack of diversity among decision-makers in Hollywood, Hunt said, where more than 90 percent of studio heads and senior studio executives are white, according to 2020’s Hollywood Diversity Report. Because executive suites are “dominated by white men,” Hunt said, studios predominantly greenlight movies in which the main characters are white, and far fewer in which they’re people of color.
Compounding that problem, Hunt said, is the fact that very few directors and writers in Hollywood are people of color. On average, from 2011 through 2020, just 13.6 percent of the directors behind the top 200 films released each year were people of color, according to UCLA’s 2021 Hollywood Diversity Report. Just 10.6 percent of the writers of those films were people of color.
“It's very rare when a person of color is at the helm as a director, and even rarer when they’re the writer," Hunt said. "That often has implications for who gets cast, and the way the lead role and the important supporting roles are imagined. If it's not a person of color [writing or directing], more often than not, you won't see people of color cast in those roles. The characters just aren't written that way.”
As long as Hollywood’s writers, directors, and executives remain overwhelmingly white, Hunt said, that’s not going to change. “At some point, decision-makers themselves are going to have to be diversified,” he said.
Promisingly, a larger share of 2020’s top films were made by writers and directors of color than ever before, UCLA’s latest report shows: 25.9 percent and 25.4 percent, respectively. And 39.7 percent of those films starred actors of color, a 12 percentage-point jump from the year prior. In 2020, people of color made up 40.3 percent of the U.S. population, the report notes; for the first time, it says, people of color were “just a hair short of proportionate representation among film leads.”
Perhaps that’s a sign of what’s to come: A Hollywood whose lead actors are just as diverse as the U.S. itself, and whose writers and directors increasingly approach the same benchmark. If that happens, actors of color could find that Academy recognition benefits them just as much as their white counterparts.
But Hunt cautioned that 2020 might be an “aberrant” year. Because of the way the pandemic upended the film industry, pushing back the release dates of countless movies originally slated to come out last year, the data in his report could be skewed, and the trend towards diversity it reflects might not hold.
“I'm not so sure that the progress we saw this year will be replicated next year,” Hunt said. “It's very possible that we'll see a backslide in 2021.”
If that “backslide” occurs, it will mean that fewer movies are being written and directed by people of color—which likely means fewer opportunities for this year’s nominees of color to land major, starring roles after this weekend’s ceremony. They may find themselves in the same position as those who came before them: recognized for their talent, but unable to use that recognition to advance their careers in the way their white counterparts can.
It’s impossible to know for sure whether this year’s lineup of nominees will suffer from that disparity. But the fact that so many actors of color were nominated to begin with means that, at the very least, they have a shot at overcoming it.
“Seeing these nominations is a major step forward,” Hunt said. “It would be a bigger step forward if many of those nominees actually win awards. And then another step forward further if they win awards and someone says, ‘Oh, I can package a deal around this person,’ and their career just takes off. But you can't get to the subsequent steps without having a nominee.”
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