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#StillSoWhite? April Reign Discusses Issues of Diversity in Filmmaking

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April Reign

April Reign pulled up a series of images—a barrage of press coverage, glitzy headshots, and an iconic gold statuette—before settling comfortably on a couch at the School of Communication’s Doyle-Forman Theater to discuss #OscarsSoWhite.

The conversation, moderated by Professor Russell Williams, explored how the #OscarsSoWhite movement started, its impact on the film industry and the Academy Awards, and next steps for promoting diversity in filmmaking.  

The Origins of #OscarsSoWhite
“I was a lawyer,” Reign said. “The Oscars were like my Super Bowl. Once the nominations came out, I would try to see the films still in theaters, so I could say if something was snubbed or not. As part of my Oscar process, I would watch the nominations every morning.” 

That day in 2015, she was preparing for work, and as each nominee was announced, category after category, they were all homogeneous. “Read: white,” she expressed. After sending a tweet, she went off to work, and the rest was history

But what Reign wanted to emphasize about that day, and the Oscars in general, is that it wasn’t just a race and ethnicity problem, it was a gender problem as well. “Not just the gendered categories,” like Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor were all white, “but the non-gendered ones,” like Best Cinematography, “were all [homogeneous] as well,” the activist expressed.

From this one tweet, #OscarsSoWhite began trending across the world, spurring legions of jokes. A year later, when Reign watched the nominations again, not much had changed. There were still no people of color nominated in the acting categories. “One time is a fluke, two times is a pattern,” Reign said. After that, a second iteration of the movement, #OscarsStillSoWhite began. She continued, “There is something to be said about a tweet that can remain in the zeitgeist for longer than a day.” Obviously something about the message was still resonating with others on social media.

What she was referring to was something larger. Reign felt that there was truly an opportunity to discuss the countless talented individuals with diverse perspectives that felt ignored by the film studios and by the premier film awards organization in the United States. Essentially, movies are a lens into culture, history, and the lives of those portrayed. Knowing the power that media has, what does it say if certain types of people are never shown on screen? What if they never receive rewards for those portrayals, costume design, or camera work.

More Diversity is Needed Throughout the Filmmaking Process 
Next, Reign flipped to a photo of Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl. Much of the controversy around the film included whether a transgender woman should have been cast in the role, rather than a cisgender man. “One of the issues I talk about is that #OscarsSoWhite isn’t a white/black thing,” continued Reign. “It’s about issues of representation. That means race and ethnicity, that means sex, able-bodiedness, it means native actors. It’s about representing all marginalized ethnicities.” It is important to acknowledge how so many lauded films don’t include anyone outside of the norm.

Perhaps the way to overcome these issues is to make sure that more marginalized stories are told, more people of color work on those scripts, and more members of the LGBT community work behind the scenes on those productions. “The Academy is truly the end of the line,” she said. “We have to go back to the blank page on the screenplay to think about who is playing in these stories, and who is writing them.” 

Often the same story is told repeatedly. “For Hollywood, who doesn’t make money unless they take risks, is really risk averse,” Professor Williams chimed in.

“It’s not just about the films...We see the issues going on with the film critics at Sundance, too,” expressed Reign. “We know how big of a deal the reviews make. People who don’t understand or identify with the films may give them flat reviews. If they don’t see culture reflected through their lens, then [they] might not enjoy it. For example, Girls Trip may not have resonated with certain audiences. For a white man reviewing this film, if he doesn’t like it, it doesn’t mean the film isn’t good. His life experience means that he can’t connect with [it or] black women the way I, a black woman, can.” 

It’s important to include diverse identities in all steps of the filmmaking process, particularly at make-or-break opportunities like Sundance. Otherwise, the consequences can be drastic. Being included in a large film festival can ensure a film gets picked up for distribution, drums up early excitement, and helps ensure higher ticket sales and larger financial returns for everyone involved. Money, and future productions, are at stake. Acknowledging its role in the problem, the festival has tried to invite people with more diverse identities. The initiative hasn’t been without “growing pains,” and many journalists have written about their own experiences since.

Types of Movies Being Awarded 
Professor Russell Williams, who won his first Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing on Glory, expressed his frustration about that evening in 1990. He stated, “I’m biased about''Glory' not getting nominated in the same year Driving Miss Daisy won best Picture." The film told the story of one of the United Stat''' first entirely African-American regiments, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and their role in the Civil War. Conversely, Driving Miss Daisy was the story of a black chauffeur and his white employer. Both Williams and Reign, agreed: black awardees often win for safe, traumatic, or demeaning roles. 

“You’re making a larger point about what wins,” she said. “And what matters is agency; agency is something that they don’t like to see with marginalized communities. All of those [black women who’ve won Oscars] have played broken women, women in abject poverty, slaves. Even Whoopi Goldberg in ‘Ghost’ [was a crazed psychic],” 

After #OscarsSoWhite, what kind of differences did we see in the nominations? As Reign already mentioned—virtually none. In 2016, again, all 20 acting nominees were white, and all but one of the directing nominees were white. Chris Rock hosted the evening, what Reign referred to as “bombing” the event, and served as “cosmetic appeasement.” She believes the Academy used the same strategy in 2020.

Janelle Monae sang a medley combining imagery and songs from nominated films, and took special care to highlight ParasiteUsDolemite Is My NameQueen & Slim, and Rocketman—films featuring international casts and foreign writers, black characters, directed by women, or featuring members of the LGBT community. In Reign’s opinion, it was contrived and ingenuine. And while the presenters, including those during the nomination show, were “black and brown heavy,” it still felt like “a bandaid on a cancer,” she said. “You can’t have more people of color in the first eight minutes than you do in the next three hours. People of color are going to notice.”

After #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy promised to double its diverse members and the membership of women by 2020. But so far, they have not fulfilled their promise concerning female members. After issues of diversity were raised, year after year, the show’s ratings ticked upwards. Diversity, and the audience it attracts, helps support films—and thus the shows that award them. Doesn’t that count for something? Reign wonders if the Academy is still relevant, especially if they appear not to care about diversity seriously.

What Comes Next
So what comes next? Reign says that studios would do well to listen to their audiences. They know what they want. Remember when the first trailer for Paramount Pictures’ Sonic the Hedgehog dropped? The complaints were so strong, the studio redesigned the titular character, and pushed the film’s release back from November 2019 to February 2020. Reign also stood at the helm of #NoConfederate, protesting a green-lit project at HBO about an alternate world in which the South succesfully seceeded from the union and slavery still exists. The project was officially whistled dead in January of 2019. Critics can make or break a project, even before it’s released.

Reign wants people to know that, if people of color, with agency, are made part of the decision-making process, and if they have real allies who bring them into the room, positive work can be done. For example, Kendall Jenner’s disastrous 2017 Pepsi ad, in which it is inferred that she was “going to solve racism with a sip of soda,” would have never happened. Conversely, when Dove supported Matthew Cherry’s Oscar-winning short, Hair Love, he was able to take it places it would not have otherwise reached. Likewise, when allies speak up for their co-stars, they often receive better pay.

Reign knows that she’s not the sole voice for diversity in film. She knows she is not the spokesperson for all marginalized communities. Sometimes “the negative thing comes from people sort of not understanding what I’m trying to do,” she explained. “I ID as black, able-bodied, straight, cis...nothing I say is new or noteworthy. It’s just right place, right time, right platform. [Sidney] Poitier and [Hattie] McDaniel were talking about it way before me...If you feel I am not doing a sufficient job for your community, let me know, take the reins and run, and I will amplify your voice.”

Reign wants to see a rom-com about the LGBT community next. “Where two people meet each other haphazardly, not the same old, tired trope,” she declared. “Rarely do we see queer people in love, or living their lives, period.” She knows that entertainment industries run on money. Better films, more diverse films, more inclusive films are the next wave. “We can demand it.”

We hope that audiences will.