Diversity Storm Heats Up in Hollywood

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oscar statuettes croppedSo far, January 2016’s paucity of fine femme-helmed and femme-centric films is particularly disappointing after last year’s bumper crop. I had hoped we were on a roll.

Pre-Oscars preoccupation may be partly to blame. But the shortage of opportunities for women and people of color in the white, male-dominated business of making movies is glaring in the pre-Oscars season, and especially exacerbated by the fact that 2016 Oscar nominations are exclusively white and nominations for women in all but the acting categories are very limited.

Celebrities are speaking out, demanding better representation for women and people of color. Female filmmakers are lobbying. Plenty of other female critics, besides me, are flagging the problem, which includes a scarcity of substantial and complex female characters in narrative films, whether Hollywood or indie, that fail to pass the Bechdel test (at least one scene with two female characters who have names, talking to each other about anything other than a man).

Martha Lauzen, executive director of San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, just released the 18th edition of her annual “Celluloid Ceiling” that spotlights women in the top 250 domestic grossing films. In 2015, just 9 percent of directors were female. That is up 2 percentage points from 2014 but matches the level achieved in 1998. Overall, women are 19 percent of individuals in the roles considered. The numbers reflect little change in women’s behind-the-scenes employment.

The study also finds that women direct movies, but guess what? More women get jobs on the crews.

As more films are considered, the study shows, the percentages of women in the most traditionally male-identified roles, such as directors and cinematographers, increase steadily. This suggests that female directors are likely to get work on low budget films rather than the big budget high grossing blockbusters.

With the Oscars on the horizon, Victoria Cook, a New York entertainment attorney, challenged the notion that female directors working in documentaries are on a more level playing field. Cook’s compelling commentary, published on The Female Gaze on Jan. 2 and elsewhere online thereafter, pointed out that in the past 20 years, only one female director (Laura Poitras for “Citizenfour”) and one co-director (Zana Briski for “Born Into Brothels”) has won an Oscar in the Best Documentary Feature category.

This year only one of the five nominated documentary features is directed by a woman, Liz Garbus for “What Happened, Ms. Simone?”

Cook goes on to write about underrepresentation of women and people of color in the Academy’s documentaries branch and in the business of making documentaries. Cook’s commentary occasioned a storm of responses on the Internet.

The storm about the dearth of ethnic diversity in Hollywood is flooding main stream media. Broadcast news, talk shows, radio shows, newspapers, industry and consumer magazines.

It’s debatable whether this very necessary and righteous diversity discussion is actually drawing attention to the cause of women in the film industry or diffusing it. The diversity outcry bundles equal opportunity for moviemaking women behind and in front of the camera into the larger issue of representation of minority groups in the movies. Women are not a minority group. And there is no reason why they/we should be treated as such.

While embracing the just complaint about movies –and the Oscars — playing just too white, we women must underscore that they are just too male, too. This is a good time for women in the audience to be proactive in discussions on line, and to comment on social media sites for the Oscars and individual movies.

Let’s hope it does some good.

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