The 2016 Academy Awards was one of the more controversial, with several high-profile actors and filmmakers boycotting the ceremony because of the lack of diversity in the nominations list. It was the second year in a row in which not a single non-white actor was nominated for an award, even though critics said 2015 had numerous films with outstanding performances from non-white actors.

Oscar nominations are only one of the pointed examples, with reporting on the pay gap between male and female actors, which surfaced towards the end of 2016, underlining how equality is hugely lacking in Hollywood. Clearly, the industry has a responsibility to be fair to all participants and to be representative of their audience, but why is it falling short by so much?

How diversity has evolved in the film industry

In the earlier part of the 20th century, the film industry was not only not diverse, but also antagonistic towards other races – behavior and phrases that are very offensive today were widely shown on screen and presented as acceptable at the time. By the middle of the century, this had stopped but it was only the start of an ongoing struggle to achieve some degree of diversity, with equality still a long way off.

The population of the United States has become increasingly diverse, but the silver screen is still showing mostly white, male, heterosexual actors, despite the fact that a sizable chunk of ticket sales is collected from a non-white audience. In essence, for decades, the industry has been stuck in a place of being perhaps socially acceptable and correct in what it shows – but unrepresentative in its makeup – and there simply has not been much in the way of improvement.

Claims and actions against the industry

Industry participants are increasingly starting to take formal action against Hollywood and the film industry in general. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has requested that state and federal agencies in the United States investigate the hiring practices of major studios. The organization contends that some female film directors have experienced discrimination first hand, while also stating that statistics show women are grossly underrepresented in directing jobs.

Formal action is being filed because there is an increasing feeling that the industry is unable to correct itself, due to ownership structures and ingrained thinking. For the moment, court cases addressing the diversity issue in film are not widespread. However, it is only a matter of time before diversity experts such as Luke Visconti lead further formal action, as evidence of progress in combatting diversity is simply not there.

The great whitewash

Arguably, the current situation is summed up by a practice in the film industry that is so common that it goes completely unnoticed by most members of the public. The frequent occurrences of filmmakers placing a white actor in a role that clearly demands someone of a different race is one of the prime examples of how the industry fails in diversity, and why it is such a key issue.

It may be true that a film will only do well in the box office if it has an easily recognizable cast, but this is not true in every case where whitewashing is apparent. Without placing actors of different races in films in the first place, the public will not grow accustomed to seeing their excellent performances on screen – and will not be immediately attracted to an unknown name on a billboard. But how and where will change come, and when will all sectors of society be equally represented in film?

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