COLUMN: Hold your applause on movie diversity

In the wake of yesterday morning’s Academy Award nomination announcements, Hollywood celebrates as huge advancements in diversity rocket the movies of 2016 past the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that has plagued the past two years. Historical, revealing, raw — the nominated films starring people of color illuminate, as they always do, the lives and trials of people whose faces are rarely seen on-screen. Individually, each of these films is a work of art, resonating with audiences in its own universal way. In Lion, it is the search for family; in Moonlight, it is a love that sustains an entire life.

Yes, it is a day to celebrate. But part of me wishes I could reach out and take Hollywood’s hand before it starts patting itself on the back too soon. As a screenwriting major and a woman of color concerned with social justice, I am simultaneously giddy for this step forward but wary of the congratulations that come with it. It is an annoying side effect of being an activist, perhaps, that I am never quite happy with the progress the world incrementally offers. Nevertheless, it keeps me fired up — it lets me enjoy the fantastic news while keeping my head in the good fight for the long run.

The short of it is that a fantastic year for minority actors and their films does not heal the wounds from #OscarsSoWhite — not when the film industry’s stubborn homogeneity is one that stretches back a century, once mocked people of color with gross caricatures and continues to stereotype and diminish women and people of color. If Hollywood is an institution, then its flaws are systemic. They are deep grooves cut into stone, ones that cannot be amended by a few good years of motion forward.

Out of the nine films nominated for Best Picture this year, four star people of color as leads. This is a tremendous stride, one that cannot and should not go by unrecognized. And yet this achievement is also an anomaly — in both the diversity and subject matter of these films. What’s striking about Lion, Moonlight, Fences and Hidden Figures is that three out of four are based in the present day. Hidden Figures, an important and critically acclaimed film about black female mathematicians at NASA, is set in the 1960s. In itself a joyous and universal picture, Hidden Figures also harkens back to a trend of prestigious films made about historical people of color.

In the past decade, roughly 10 films have been nominated for Best Picture starring people of color (rough because I am also counting the Asian American Russell from Up, which is an animated movie — yes, the plight of minorities is that bad in cinema). It goes without saying that these nominated pictures were not the only movies made about people of color in the last 10 years; yet, four of those 10 films (Selma, 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained and The Help) were about or set during historical events. Obviously, the Academy likes historical drama, but it is curious to me how this genre envelopes practically half of the diverse pictures nominated. Is it easier to applaud minority characters from the past than from the present?

If movies, as works of art, are vessels that help us realize empathy and universal truths, then it is as important to tell stories about people from the present as it is to tell stories about people in the past. It is perhaps easier to watch Hidden Figures and grow angry at the obvious racism and sexism these women had to face than it is to watch Moonlight and fathom the prejudice that still exists in the present. That’s why I’m so happy about this year’s nominations, which include a bit of everything: the past and the present, encompassing diversity in multiple ways.

As a woman of color, the scripts I write mostly star women of color. Most of them are set in the present, and I’m glad I’m seeing the scope of cinema’s imagination finally extending to minorities in the modern world. My point is not that historical and biopic movies starring people of color are pointless — the opposite, actually. These movies are indescribably valuable in uncovering the role minorities played in building American history. 

But my longing for more grounded, diverse drama has personal roots that I’m sure resonate with young artists all over. The wistfulness I feel toward Hollywood is split between longing to see on-screen Asian American faces like mine and longing to see on-screen stories like the ones I write today. The past is a huge, magnetic cavern to explore, and indeed its stories are worth telling. But imagination is also as expansive as the universe, one that stretches farther and farther away. And what is crucial for artists concerned with diversity is to certainly harvest stories from the past, but also to guide audiences toward picturing a present and future in which minorities and women make greater strides.

Zoe Cheng is a sophomore majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Wide Shot,” runs Wednesdays.