What SAG and Sundance taught me about diversity

Any discussion of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign at this point probably sounds like a broken record. The issue has been so heavily debated in the past seven days, but it still bears discussion. Last week, I wrote about the Academy’s possibility of inflaming industry veterans with their hasty decision to cut off members’ voting privileges if they haven’t been active in the business for a while. Just because someone hasn’t made a movie in ten years, doesn’t mean they are out of touch with the current socio-political atmosphere and are less likely to vote diverse, right? We shouldn’t prejudice against those who haven’t had the chance to work, especially in such a historically infamous industry that is most famous for those elusive “15 minutes” and the perpetuation of the phrase “the younger, the better.” On the flip side of the argument is the unfortunate truth that there are a lot of industry vets who vote for their friends, not even bothering to watch most of the movie screeners that are sent out as awards season gears up. There’s no way to gauge if members have watched or not watched the films they’re voting for, and so the Academy has to crack down somewhere. The argument is muddied and seemingly, there are two sides to the story.

However, in a positive turn this weekend, the Screen Actors Guild Awards proved that Hollywood can, in fact, be open to progress. Idris Elba — who starred in Cary Fukanaga’s African war movie Beasts of No Nation this past year — won two awards in the night. It was wildly claimed that Elba was snubbed this year by the Oscars, many saying he should’ve been nominated for the Supporting Actor category. When he introduced a clip from the film during the awards, he prefaced them by saying: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to diverse TV,” thereby reinforcing the idea that diversity must remain on the minds of consumers. After his first SAG win, he then went on to snag another for his role in the television series Luther. Uzo Adubo — most famous for playing Crazy Eyes in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black — won for the second year in a row, a tremendous indication of progression and inclusion, at least where the actors are considered. To vote for SAG, you have to be part of the Screen Actors Guild, which means that (mostly) directors, writers and producers are not involved in the nominating process. Does this indicate that actors are far more liberal and conscientious of equality? Or perhaps the heat from this year’s Oscars backlash finally made some change. The SAG Awards are notable in that they announce their nominations before the Academy did, but voting only finished on the 29th, meaning that the #OscarsSoWhite campaign might have had some influence. Or, the Academy is truly as dodgy and old-fashioned as many suggest, and the proof really is in the members who vote. Whatever the reason this weekend’s awards remain notable not only for those who won, but also for continuing the conversation that’s on everyone’s lips. If we are to see real change in this industry, the momentum must continue throughout the year. While the Oscars may seem like old or tired news at this point, the SAG Awards have maintained the need for this discussion.

All of these events are also important when turning an eye to the future of films, and the upcoming slate of movies for the next year. At the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, this past week, history was made when The Birth of a Nation — Nate Parker’s drama about slave rebellion leader Nat Turner — not only won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury prize, but Fox Searchlight Pictures also bought the film for $17.5 million dollars, the largest deal ever to be made at Sundance. When Kristin Wiig’s all female Bridesmaids grossed $288 million worldwide in 2011, studio executives had a chance to turn around and realize that female-driven films actually make money (surprise!). This revelation with The Birth of a Nation in the festival world seems to be a positive step in the right direction for increased diversity as 2016 begins to amp up. Purchasing a film for such a large sum is not only a show of confidence in the filmmakers, but also communicates the idea that the movie will have a large pull for ticket buyers — meaning we don’t need white movies to make money. While this isn’t necessarily a revolutionary concept for audience members, it may change the innermost cogs of Hollywood.

Last year it seems as if feminism was the buzzword on everyone’s minds. This year, let’s make it diversity. It’s about time.

Minnie Schedeen is a junior majoring in cinema and media studies.  Her column “Film Fatale” runs on Mondays. 

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