The SAGs: awards’ season answer to diversity. But what’s the real problem?

#OscarsSoWhite has become the hashtag of the 2016 Oscars. The lack of racial diversity has caused something of a stir in Hollywood. Idris Elba, who was widely acclaimed for his role in Beasts of No Nation was overlooked, as was Micheal B. Jordan’s excellent performance in Creed, the latest Rocky instalment. The critically lauded Straight Outta Compton was also overlooked, bar its screenplay. There has been a public outcry for a lack of racial diversity shown by the Academy Awards, which portray the pinnacle achievement in the film industry.

This weekend saw the Screen Actors Guild Award come to town, and not only did the nominations show diversity, but so did the winners. Yes, the ‘big’ awards followed the general industry consensus, awarding Best Actor to Leonado Di Caprio, Best Actress to Brie Larson and Best Ensemble to Spotlight. But winners in other categories went against the grain.

Idris Elba, who was overlooked for a Best Supporting Actor nod for his role in Beasts of No Nation took home a SAG statuette AND bagged a second for reprising his role in Luther. Other racially diverse winners were Viola Davis for How to Get Away with Murder, Uzo Abuda for Orange is the New Black and Queen Latifah for the miniseries Bessie.

Further lack of diversity at awards season comes in the oh so often neglected female representation in any category that isn’t dedicated to women in the first place thanks to the suffix of ‘ess’. Since Katherine Bigelow won Best Director for The Hurt Locker back in 2010, the short list for all the big awards has been distinctly male.

Last year, Patricia Arquette used her acceptance speech to give a voice to women in the industry, calling for equal wages, which was greeted by a standing ovation lead by Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez from the front row. But it’s not just wages that are the problem. As Variety highlighted, there is generally a lack of opportunities for women. In 2014, 85% of films had no female directors, 80% had no female writers and 33% had no female producers.

The SAG Awards saw Orange is the New Black win Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series – the picture of this moment speaks a thousand words as these women stand triumphantly on the stage in their gowns, fists punching the air in triumph. It’s refreshing to see a cast of (mostly) women in a show that is penned by a woman with a strong female production team, succeed.
Mind you, it’s worth noting that the SAG don’t give out awards for ‘best’ performances, but for ‘outstanding performances’. Perhaps there’s something in that: not declaring that their chosen recipient is hands-down the ‘best’, but simply outstanding and wrothy of an award. I like that. Maybe it’s to do with the new thinking behind the 22-year-old SAGs, as opposed to the antiquated 88-year-old Oscars that still instil the old-school Hollywood values: discrimination, favouritism et al.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the SAGs cover the television screen as well as ‘the big screen’, so there are more awards and therefore more opportunities. The same goes for the Golden Globes (and the BAFTAs, although the Brits do divide the two into different ceremonies at different times of the year).

So what is the fuss about with the lack of diversity at other awards ceremonies? A lot of the problem is based on opportunity: it depends what films are released that year, which in turn is dependent on what scripts are written, approved by studios and given the financial backing, before they can even reach the screen and be judged for their content.

The Big Short has been held up as a mirror to the lack of diversity in this year’s nominations as it is fronted by four white men, with a supporting cast of white men with women only appearing in supporting roles as strippers and waitresses. But director and co-writer Adam McKay defended the film, saying that it is all circumstancial.

“I think we’ve had stretches where there’s been good diversity, but lately it hasn’t been great. So I think if any group on planet earth should be able to deal with protests like this, it should be filmmakers. So I support it…” He said. “The irony is, we had to make a movie about Wall Street, which is mostly white men. So it was a little frustrating for us, but that’s the truth of Wall Street, we had to do it.” And he’s right.

We wouldn’t have been having this ‘white’ Oscars debate three years ago when 12 Years a Slave scooped Best Actor, and breakout star and red carpet darling of the year Lupita Nyung’o won Best Supporting Actress, and deservedly so. Her’s was a moving performance in a powerful and important film. To boot, its director Steve McQueen was nominated for Best Director, and Chiwetel Ejiofor received a Best Actor nomination.

When it comes to a lack of female diversity, much of this is simply to do with limited opportunities for women behind the camera. The film industry is still very much as old boys club. Even in front of the camera, women struggle to find interesting roles with depth, particularly once they are past the age of thirty. There is generally a lack of leading roles for women. Famously, Angelina Jolie’s role in the spy thriller, Salt was meant to be for a man: a Tom Cruise-esque vehicle. But she proved that women can do just as good a job in a man’s role, and even brought another dimension to the role with a feminine sensibility. Not to mention, it was refreshing seeing a woman-lead action film that didn’t involve the heroine wearing lycra or a crop top – yes, Angelina, everyone remembers Tomb Raider.

It is great to see the SAG Awards honouring the underdog, however I am sure that Idris Elba won his two awards for his merit, and wants to be remembered that way: not for being a black man that the Guild took pity on/saw as an opportunity to give a finger to the Academy. Elba is a phenomenal actor, and alongside Redmayne, I believe he is one of Britain’s greatest acting exports of the moment – not forgetting two of my favourites, Kate Winslet and Helen Mirren, who are still both killing it despite their age – yes, even Winslet is considered ‘old’ by industry standards now she has hit the big four-oh.

The SAGs are being hailed as the “pointed counter to [the] Oscars” – thanks Guardian. Yes, the Oscars didn’t even nominate some actors – Idrid Elba has certainly been overlooked, I’m not so sure about Will Smith. But I stand by my comment that these winners are only a product of the material that they are provided with: a role written for a white man can (in most circumstances) only be played by a white man. There needs to be a change in attitudes in the white-male dominated industry that allows minorities through the door, both behind the camera and in front of it. Maybe then we will see a more diverse nomination list come awards season.


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