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A Decade of Race & Gender in Academy Awards-Shortlisted Documentaries (2008-2017)

By Juliana Yellin

Several academy awards

For documentary feature films, over the past decade (2008-2017), almost 9 in 10 (87%) Academy Award shortlist-recognized documentary directors have been white, and three-quarters (75%) have been men.

There are similar findings for producers in a new study from the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University School of Communication, the first to comprehensively examine #OscarsSoWhite trends in the documentary category over a full decade. Check out "Journey to the Academy Awards: A Decade of Race & Gender in Oscar-Shortlisted Documentaries (2008-2017)." Documentary plays a role in both a functioning democracy and entertainment ecosystem, so it's important to continue to examine who is telling the stories.

The study was conducted by Caty Borum Chatoo, director of CMSI, with the help of SOC graduate students and CMSI fellows Nesima Aberra, Michele Alexander, Chandler Green.  The team collected and coded data of interest such as film topic areas, distribution, and credited directors' and producers' race and gender, from 150 films shortlisted for an Academy Award released between 2008-2017. 

Among the key findings:

  • For the first time in history, four out of five directors of nominated documentaries are people of color. This is a notable increase from 18 percent directors of color in 2016.
  • People of color are severely underrepresented as shortlisted documentary directors and producers, although the percentage of non-white shortlisted directors increased this year. 
  • This year, women still only represent about a quarter of the shortlisted documentary directors. However, about 50 percent of shortlisted documentary producers are women.
  • The Academy consistently recognizes and shortlists documentaries about social issues, accounting for 69 percent of shortlisted films in the past ten years.
  • Film festivals and online streaming were huge components of the distribution plans for shortlisted films.
  • Cinema Eye Honors, Sundance Film Festival Awards and Emmy Awards, in that order, correlated the most to Oscar shortlist recognition.