The death of actor Chadwick Boseman last week was equally shocking as it was devastating. With lead roles in blockbuster films such as “42” and Marvel’s “Black Panther,” Boseman was an icon for Black cinema across the nation. As the world mourns his loss, it is also important to honor what he and his career represented. Boseman’s role as King T’Challa was the first time a Black actor was at the forefront of a blockbuster Marvel movie — bringing in $1.3 billion in box office revenue and coming in at the top-five highest-grossing Marvel films; this role shot Boseman to stardom.
Boseman’s role as King T’Challa is deeply symbolic of the changes occurring in Hollywood, especially when looking back to the 2015 Oscars and subsequent #OscarsSoWhite callout. Only five years since activist April Reign coined the hashtag, the world has witnessed a breathtaking array of cinema choc-full of diversity and representation on the big screen. Movies such as Jordan Peele’s “Us” and “Get Out” as well as Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” to name a few. These films will undoubtedly go down in history as masterpieces of visual storytelling. Whether they are remembered for their iconic cinematography, multicultural cast lists, or prolific directors of color, these films signify a tremendous moment for Black cinema in Hollywood. No matter how accomplished these movies may be, one cannot ignore the fact that films of this nature are still very sparse amongst box office chart toppers in Hollywood.
On-screen portrayals of underrepresented groups appear to be on the rise. However, according to a 2019 report from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, there is little to no such change occurring behind the cameras and in the writing rooms. According to this report, only 16.9% of film directors were from underrepresented groups, and only 4.5% of film directors were women. When one of the most diverse lists of nominees in Oscars history was announced in 2019, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ alleged commitment to diversity seemed it was paying off — but not a year later, all hope was lost.
The 2020 Oscars list of nominees and winners looked strikingly similar to that of 2015’s, noting only one Black acting nominee — Cynthia Erivo in “Harriet.” While Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” was the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture, this victory should not overshadow the lack of diversity within all other categories. The 2020 revival of #OscarsSoWhite demonstrates that equity in visual storytelling and film cannot be established solely through representation on the big screen. Issues of underrepresentation will continue to permeate the industry unless an institutional change occurs. While it’s great to see more faces of color on-screen, there needs to be more equitable representation of marginalized groups in writing rooms, director’s chairs, casting agencies, nomination boards and executive offices. Simply putting more people of color in front of the camera does not eliminate the pervasive diversity issues in Hollywood.
For Hollywood to demonstrate that its commitments to change and statements of solidarity are not merely performative, significant institutional changes must occur. Without representation in all aspects of the entertainment industry, Hollywood will continue to be a white-washed, male-dominated escapade that ignores the significance of diversity in storytelling through visual media and film.