Racial Equity

Is the Film Industry Enacting Change… or Merely Performing?

March 7, 2023  • Religion & Society Program

Awards season has already kicked off, and with it an eerily familiar feeling. Once again, we see conversations around representation, discrimination, and diversity at the forefront of the Grammys, the Golden Globes, the Oscars – the list goes on. Did the entertainment industry learn anything from #OscarsSoWhite a few years ago? How does it relate to the depiction of different faiths, or the growing population of “nones” we see across the U.S.?

Increased diversity in media can ensure stereotypes about historically marginalized communities are broken, but true authenticity and diversity is only possible when people are empowered to tell their own stories, to embody them in front of the camera, and to have crews who can relate to these lived stories on a deep and personal level. While we’ve seen many positive changes in making the media industry more diverse, it is still lacking representation of religious diversity in its content and in key positions of power and influence.

While many aspects of inclusion and representation push forward, attention to religious diversity lags. So long as the conditions of underrepresentation and misrepresentation fester unchallenged, we will continue to see harmful stereotypes all around us that flatten beautifully complex human beings and whole communities. Film and television have often been an innocent foothold around the world; audiences are educated by what they witness on movie screens, television screens, and handheld screens. That education can perpetuate harmful representations, or it can be an agent for justice and equity.

Creating representation in media through organizing and activism

Some institutions and organizations can, and often do, assist film and television creators in understanding the implications of inaccurate representation and, indeed, complete absence. The majority of these organizations highlight historically underrepresented populations through the lens of gender, race, LGBTQIA+, disability, and those over the age of fifty years old. There are few organizations that are actively working to promote religious pluralism.

There is a growing social conversation and criticism about the misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and ignorance of historically underrepresented populations in U.S. film and television. One such critique that gained traction in social media, major media, and among many within the film and television industry was #OscarsSoWhite during the 2015 and 2016 Academy Awards seasons. The hashtag was a response from activist and writer April Reign to the nominees for the 87th Academy Awards in 2015. Nominees for all of the acting categories were white, even though a number of critically acclaimed films featuring people of color in significant roles were eligible for consideration. This again happened in 2016. The repeat failure to acknowledge representation led to the revival of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and a protest from Black filmmakers and producers of the 2016 awards ceremony.1

In response to the critique initiated by #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) made sudden and very public changes in its governance and qualifications. The AMPAS Board approved changes to diversify its membership in 2016 with hopes of then diversifying nominees. It created the A2020 Initiative to broaden membership representation with an emphasis on including women, underrepresented racial/ethnic communities, and global communities.2

Following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020, Hollywood responded by denouncing racism. Major studios, film and television executives, and A-list actors took to social media to condemn racism. One month after Floyd’s death, AMPAS released their new member class. The new member class sought to “ensure that more perspectives are taken into consideration when determining what is the best art of our time.” 3 AMPAS also released representation and inclusion standards (RAISE) to ensure diversity in front of and behind the camera for awards-eligible films. Major studios followed suit and created inclusion initiatives to be implemented in film and television production. In September 2020, APMAS announced its Academy Aperture 2025 Initiative. This initiative is “designed to encourage equitable representation on and off screen in order to better reflect the diversity of the movie-going audience.” 4 While the initiative includes a number of historically underrepresented communities, underrepresented religious groups have been excluded.

While groups made social media posts and made changes through reshaping membership and creating resources, did these actions make a marked impact? Following public tragedies involving a historically marginalized group, there are oftentimes immediate reactions that appear nice, yet are merely performative. Performative actions do not address systemic issues. Creating resources can help, but those resources need to be made widely available and used. In order to dismantle historical and systemic issues, we need thoughtful approaches that go beyond reaction and performance.

Critiques of 2023 Academy Award nominations

Many people have offered critiques of the 2023 Academy Award nominations for access to storytelling and access to recognition. “Avatar: The Way of Water” is one of the ten films nominated for Best Picture and is the sequel to the 2010 Best Picture nominee “Avatar.” James Cameron commented that he was inspired to write the screenplay for the first “Avatar” film after learning about the murder and displacement of the Lakota Sioux by the United States government. 5 While inspired by the plight of the Lakota Sioux, Cameron did not seek consultation from them in his storytelling nor cast Lakota in the film. “Avatar: The Way of Water” draws not only on Māori practices, but also relies on a white saviorism trope. While a Māori and a Pacific Islander were cast in voice roles, there is a disconnect with Polynesian traditions that results in them serving as window dressing, rather than being honored and represented. In her contribution to America: A Jesuit Review, Lakota citizen Kristin Weston laments the lack of Indigenous representation in the sequel. She also asks, “If we are going to portray Native people and our stories, why not use them as the actor, directors and writers? Who can tell the story better than Indigenous people themselves?” 6

Religion and its sometimes horrific abuses are recognized in the Best Picture category. “Women Talking” is inspired by events that took place in a remote Mennonite community in Bolivia. The film was written and directed by Sarah Polley and has a predominantly female cast. Akin to 2016 Best Picture winner, “Spotlight,” the power of storytelling through film reveals the insidious side of using religion as a means of control and abuse. Even with Polley being nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for “Women Talking,” she has been notably left out of the Best Director category.

Critiques of this year’s nominees also touch on race and access to power. AMPAS is currently leading an investigation into campaign procedures meant to garner nominations. Best Actress nominee Andrea Riseborough starred in the independent film, “To Leslie,” which earned $27,000 at the box office. She did not receive any nominations in prominent precursor awards, yet leading up to the Academy Award nominations, several white A-list Hollywood actors 7 took to social media to praise Riseborough’s performance. The Best Actress category has some diversity, notably Michelle Yeoh’s historic nomination as the first Asian woman to be nominated, yet there is not a single Black woman as a nominee, despite the release of critically acclaimed films “Till,” “The Woman King,” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” all led by Black women. It’s clear we still have much to learn from current day critiques, the #OscarsSoWhite movement, and APMAS’ responses.

I urge us to see this awards season as an opportunity to utilize relationships and power dynamics across different modes of operating in film and television to tell meaningful and faithful stories about religious representation. While much work toward accurate representation of religious communities lies ahead, we have an opportunity to draw a vibrant, detailed picture of the religious pluralism we hope to see represented on screen.

1 Nancy Wang Yuen, Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2016), 1-8.</p?

2 “A2020 Accomplishments,” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, accessed September 16, 2022, https://www.oscars.org/newmembers2020/pdf/2020_new_members_overview.pdf.

3 Angela Watercutter, “In This American Revolution, Even the Oscars Have a Role,” Wired Magazine, July 3, 2020, accessed October 27, 2022, https://www.wired.com/story/oscars-american-revolution-culture/.

4 “Academy establishes representation and inclusion standards for Oscars ® Eligibility,” September 8, 2020, accessed September 16, 2022, https://www.oscars.org/news/academy-establishes-representation-and-inclusion-standards-oscarsr-eligibility.

5 Tom Phillips, “Avatar director James Cameron joins Amazon tribe’s fight to halt giant dam,” The Guardian, April 17, 2010, accessed January 31, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/apr/18/avatar-james-cameron-brazil-dam?fbclid=PAAaawEuRyYY-NqFB_Vx1GaXuHpfjaLrH54rRqpPpVWkE-zU2dj_YskJzBjCQ.

6 Kristin Weston, “‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ and the question of Indigenous representation,” America: The Jesuit Review, January 27, 2023, accessed January 31, 2023, https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2023/01/27/avatar-native-american-representation-244603.

7 Ian Youngs and Steven McIntosh, “Oscars 2023: Actress Andrea Riseborough keeps nomination despite ‘concerns’,” BBC News, January 31, 2023, accessed February 2, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-64468646.