Hollywood needs diversity behind the camera as well

Without representation behind the screen, diversity on it won’t move beyond symbolism, as 2023’s Oscar nominees show.

Michelle Yeoh arrives at the 28th annual Critics Choice Awards at The Fairmont Century Plaza Hotel on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
Actress Michelle Yeoh, seen here at the 28th annual Critics Choice Awards in Los Angeles on January 15, 2023, is the only non-white actor in the best actress category at the Academy Awards [Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP]

It’s awards season, that time of the year when the moving image is celebrated in all its forms. The world’s most prolific actors, directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, musicians, editors, costume designers, animators and other creatives are feted with shiny statuettes, critical acclaim and, most importantly, cultural and professional currency.

In recent years, this season has also led to increased scrutiny of the lack of representation of women and minorities in the film and television industries. Last year, the Golden Globes went on a hiatus amid criticism of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association — which bestows those awards — over poor diversity.

Yet for all the talk and hashtags, the reality remains grim. Michelle Yeoh is the only non-white actor in the best actress category at the Academy Awards, and the Oscars are courting controversy for ignoring Viola Davis in The Woman King and Danielle Deadwyler in Till. The best actor category only includes white men, and the best director segment doesn’t feature any women or Black filmmakers.

In fact, things are getting worse. While there is at least significant media attention on the need to increase representation on screen, the numbers tell an even more sorry tale when it comes to diversity off screen.

A recent USC Annenberg study, which looked at the gender, race and ethnicity of directors behind the 100 highest-grossing movies of 2022, found only 9 percent were women, down from 12.7 percent in 2021. Only 20.7 percent of directors were Black, Asian, Hispanic, Latino or multiracial directors, down from 27.3 percent in 2021. Another study by San Diego State University (pdf) arrived at similar conclusions.

Of course, many prominent television and OTT series and movies have featured non-white characters in lead roles in recent years. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — which awards the Oscars — instituted diversity and inclusion standards in 2020. Under those rules, creatives from diverse ethnic and minority communities must be hired in major roles for films to have a shot at the best picture award from the 2024-25 season.

Indeed, one could say that even until a few years ago, a film like Everything Everywhere All At Once — this year’s (and my) awards season favourite — would have never been made. Easily Yeoh’s career-best performance, she plays a Chinese-American immigrant who must connect with every version of herself across the multiverse to save it. Stephanie Hsu, also nominated, is a revelation, and the film is, simply put, an unforgettable cinematic ride.

Ke Huy Quan, who plays Yeoh’s husband in the film, has repeatedly said that he hadn’t worked on-screen in nearly 20 years because no one wanted to hire an actor who looked like him. The massively acclaimed show Warrior, based on Bruce Lee’s writings, might have remained closeted away in an earlier time; the fun and powerful Mo, which tells the story of a Palestinian refugee seeking American citizenship would have been unthinkable; and Naatu Naatu, the Indian song nominated for an Oscar, would not have made waves outside the country.

Yet far too often, studios are still making hires to check boxes, without treating women and minorities on par with white male artists. John Boyega has spoken of his Star Wars casting as a public spectacle instead of sincere inclusiveness by Disney. Adele Lim, who co-wrote the megahit film Crazy Rich Asians, refused to write the sequel when she learned that Warner Bros had offered her about one-tenth of the white male writer’s fee of about $1m.

For here’s the truth: Representation begets representation, as repeatedly proven — a woman is more likely to hire other women for key jobs; ditto for people of colour or minorities. When there’s shrinking diversity behind the camera, to expect meaningfully improved representation of women and minorities in front of it is to be naïve.

That lack of diversity behind the scenes in Western television and movie studios also shows up in their visual depiction of non-Western, developing countries.

While much is said about the Orientalist treatment of non-Western people and their cultures (Arabs, Asians, Africans, Native Americans) in cinema and TV, it’s equally important to point out how their cities and countries are depicted on screen. There’s the orange/yellow tint that characterises Latin America, the Middle East, Africa or South Asia, which audiences immediately associate with violence, fear and uncivilised people.

Remember the Netflix movie Extraction, starring Chris Hemsworth? It shows Bangladesh like it’s a war zone, with kids running around with AK-47s, and non-Bangladeshi actors speaking in cringy accents amid filth and chaos. All of Breaking Bad’s Mexico scenes were shot with this filter — also commonly called the “shithole filter”.

There’s also the shocking lack of research and accuracy on developing countries even in well-known shows. In 2015, a few artists hired to draw Arabic graffiti to depict refugee camps for the Emmy-winning show Homeland sneaked in the phrase “Homeland is racist”, and no one on set even realised it. This remains one of the most hard-hitting protests against Hollywood’s continually abysmal characterisation of the Arab world.

On the ongoing American show Seal Team, Karachi’s buildings are shown with fire escapes, India’s military is shown to have helicopters with call signs that are woefully inaccurate and the Middle East is only a desert. This, in a show that prides itself on the authentic depiction of Seal operations. Black Adam, the movie, depicts some version of Cairo that doesn’t look or sound like one.

These examples, and many more like them, point to the absence of a diverse team of writers, directors, cinematographers and other crew who could lend authenticity to the worlds they were trying to show.

By contrast, the Marvel shows Moon Knight, directed by Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab, and the Karachi-based episodes of Ms Marvel by two-time Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, have been lauded for addressing the general lack of authenticity in the industry.

Diab, who had called out Wonder Woman 1984 for making Egypt look like a country from the Middle Ages, presented Cairo, his city, with great depth and detail — which is one of the reasons Moon Knight was such a critical success. On the other hand, Obaid-Chinoy worked closely with Ms Marvel’s production designer to recreate Karachi in Bangkok, and drew inspiration from the home she grew up in to design Ms Marvel’s grandmother’s home in Karachi.

In a world where everyone watches everything, Hollywood can no longer make excuses for its misogyny, racism and a whitewashed approach to globalised entertainment. And genuine change will only come when the industry embraces diversity across the board. That cannot be an act.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.