Columns

Mitra ’18: After the Oscars whitewash, we should turn to TV

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, February 15, 2016

Another year, another over-the-top Oscars ceremony, another all-white acting nomination field. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has eschewed diversity and ignored some terrific performances from minority actors. In the four major acting categories, every single nominee is white. The worst part? It’s shocking, certainly, but not unprecedented. After all, last year’s ceremony was a “whiteout” as well.

The Academy is notorious for its lack of diversity — not only in terms of race but also gender and other categories, as Herald staff columnist Ameer Malik ’18 wrote last week (“The Academy’s Shortcomings,” Feb. 7). The issue isn’t just about the films we recognize but the types of movies produced. Sure, we have a few gems about minorities every year, but they are few and far between. For every “Selma” or “12 Years a Slave,” we have a host of movies that diminish or stereotype the minority experience.

Many influential actors have spoken out against the lack of inclusion and diversity in the industry; several have even announced their intention to boycott the Oscars completely. The public outrage prompted by the #OscarsSoWhite campaign has forced the Academy to take action to improve its membership’s diversity. Unfortunately, those changes alone are not enough. More must be done to expand opportunities for minority actors, directors, screenwriters and anyone else involved in the industry.

If the film industry really wants to become more inclusive, perhaps it should look to its counterpart on the small screen.  Though certainly with its own set of flaws and limitations, television is being hailed as the new progressive medium. Shows starring people of color are emerging as popular and critical successes. It really does seem to look more diverse than ever, with shows like “Master of None,” “The Mindy Project,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Scandal,” “Empire,” “Quantico” … The list goes on and on. As Idris Elba put it in his speech at the Screen Actors Guild Awards last month, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to more diverse TV.”

Television was not always considered a multicultural forum. In 1999, the NAACP threatened to boycott network television on New Year’s Eve to protest its lack of diversity. As recently as fall 2008, television failed to offer a single minority lead in a newly developed television show. Viola Davis was blunt but spot-on in her Emmy acceptance speech last October: “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” And yet, in the last eight years, Davis and other minority actors have managed to break through the glass ceiling and put television on the path to becoming a more realistic and diverse medium. The future of television has never looked so bright and, frankly, colorful.

It is also refreshing to note that race has become less of a trope in episode plots. When I watched TV as a child, I was painfully aware that most sitcoms and dramas had all-white (or majority-white) casts. In the rare instances when casts were more diverse, minority roles always seemed to embrace stereotypes. But in recent years, race is increasingly used to enhance a part rather than to portray a caricature. Actors like Mindy Kaling, Kerry Washington and Aziz Ansari have shown how ethnicity can contribute to characterization without becoming the central or defining feature of a role. In doing so, they have made television more real and relatable.

Of course, television has certain advantages over the film industry as it strives to address this issue. It has become a more experimental form for a variety of reasons. Television shows have a number of episodes to test out different formulas and refine their messages. They also tend to cater to more specialized audiences and don’t need to simplify their messages to attract a broader public. But though it is important to acknowledge that there are significant differences between the two industries, I can’t help but feel that Hollywood should follow television’s lead. There is no reason why television’s success shouldn’t translate to the big screen.

That said, there is still enormous room to improve diversity in television. We have more minority leads than before, but there are all too many shows that unnecessarily retain all-white casts. There is still a dearth of diverse representation, particularly in directing and screenwriting. This could prove to be a barrier for telling important stories from varied perspectives. It is also a timely reminder that there is still a lot of work to be done. But the television industry, at least, is making a well-intentioned start.

Mili Mitra ’18 can be reached at mili_mitra@brown.edu.

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