The Puzzle of Oscar Diversity: Where are the Women Behind the Camera?

2 · 24 · 2019

By Shivani Ghate


As a child, I would eagerly look forward to the evenings when my family would drive to Redbox and pick out new movies to rent. From a young age, I experienced the transformative power of film as I fell in love with movies like Finding Nemo, The Lion King, and Snow White. I remember memorizing every song in The Sound of Music and standing in line for the midnight premiere of the last Harry Potter movie. Movies have had a tangible impact on my childhood – and I’m far from the only person who can say this. While no one can take away the raw emotions films evoke for me and others, a movie’s validity is tested every year at the Oscars as the Academy votes for filmmakers, actors, and screenplays that, according to them, are worthy of exceptional recognition. There’s become no better symbol of a film’s cultural significance than the Oscars, which will be celebrating its 91st run this Sunday. With its prestige and publicity, the Academy Awards have historically shaped the public conversation surrounding film and, in doing so, have also contributed to other cultural conversations surrounding gender and racial discrimination –– experiences that becomes even more easily examined when represented on the big-screen.

And diversity in particular has been thrust to the forefront of this conversation ever since the backlash from #OscarsSoWhite, spearheaded by April Reign in 2016 in response to an unsurprisingly all-white nomination slate for that year’s awards season. The public outcry catalyzed a push for greater representation within the industry, leading to box office smashes like Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and most recently, Spike Lee’s Blackkklansmen. The Academy took note and recognized more actors and directors of color, like Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), Mahershala Ali (Green Book), and Yalitza Aparicio (Roma).

However, despite the strides made towards creating more inclusive casts, there is still much progress to be made in order to achieve true diversity in all aspects of the film industry. For instance, Crazy Rich Asians has three women out of its 14 producers, Roma has two women out of its nine producers, and Green Book has only one woman out of its 11 producers. All three of these movies, while praised for their diversity, have an all-male team of cinematographers, editors, and directors.

This narrative is the norm – men still overwhelmingly dominate the executive roles behind the camera. According to a report from the Women’s Media Center, women have received only 19% of the non-acting Oscar nominations in the past decade. Only 12 films directed by women have been nominated for best picture in the entire history of the Oscars and no woman has ever been nominated for best cinematography. The problem extends beyond the Oscars: of the top 100 grossing films of 2018, women represented only 4% of directors, 18% of producers, 15% of writers, and 3% of cinematographers.

As Viola Davis said in her 2017 Emmy acceptance speech, “You cannot win an Oscar for roles that are simply not there.” Women, particularly women of color, simply do not have access to the same opportunities as men without the plethora of mentors and role models from which men benefit. It is not enough to fill a quota set for women to fill – there needs to be a systemic shift in the mindset in the way we approach diversity. Leaders in the film industry must recognize the potential in women and actively mentor them to pursue these careers. Ultimately, this is beneficial for the industry as a whole: more diversity in directing, editing, and writing roles means more diversity in the types of stories told.

The future shows promising signs. For the first time in the history of the Sundance Film Festival, over half of the films in the dramatic competition category (considered its most prestigious category) were helmed by female directors. In June 2018, the Academy sent out member invitations to 928 artists and executives, including many women, racial minorities, and international people. The Academy will see a significant increase in the diversity of its voting body, subsequently resulting in the recognition of a broader subset of movies. Progress is always complex and never linear, but the film industry seems to be taking the right steps to prioritize diversity both on and off the screen.

The Oscars will air this Sunday, February 24 at 8:00 PM EST

Graphic by Kaitlin Ariela