There’s been much talk lately regarding Hollywood’s lack of diversity, a topic which has been present since the beginnings of western cinema and which recently came to a head with this year’s white-washed Oscars ceremony, spawning the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
With boycotts announced from the likes of Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Spike Lee, as well as various members of the film industry voicing their disapproval of the way in which the diversity problem has been handled, answers to the issue are continuing to be raised. Viola Davis' comments on diversity backstage at the Screen Actors Guild Awards highlight the importance of seeing the issue as more than a trending topic and rising above it, while Idris Elba's "Welcome to diverse TV" speech approaches the same issue but with a lighter, slightly-mocking tone.
Following the uproar, it seems as though Hollywood may actually be listening, with comments regarding the issue made by an anonymous member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The Academy honors theatrically released films. Its members can do more by hiring people in all cinematic art forms that do not look like they do. They can green-light stories with roles written for people that are of all sizes, genders, and colors. And the movie going public can support all these efforts by going to see the films embrace these people.
Though maybe that answer sounds a little too simplistic – the Academy is also looking at reassessing members’ voting eligibility every ten years, with the anonymous member explaining:
If the active voting members can accurately represent the array of talent that is currently working [in the film industry], I can’t see how that would hurt … It is high time for diversity in its own ranks to be scrutinized.
While this is all well and good – and an expected, basic response to the issue – a new response has been suggested by film critic Manohla Dargis in her New York Times piece on the Sundance Film Festival, in which she puts forward the concept of “The DuVernay test”, which is basically the race equivalent of the Bechdel test, named in honour of Selma director Ava DuVernay.
While the Bechdel test - which first came out in Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For - looks at whether female characters can interact within a story without discussing or being brought together by a man, the DuVernay test, as Dargis writes, is a Bechdel-equivalent to test whether “African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories.”
Since the article, the test has received a nod of approval from its namesake and has been applied to recently released films, though only a few have passed the test, including Dargis' Sundance example Morris From America and the Oscar-snubbed Straight Outta Compton.
The test is a good start to recognising diversity flaws in film, despite its concept being quite simple, but proves that Hollywood still has a long way to go, not only in terms of recognising talent outside of their usual slew of white members, but also in the casting of people of colour in non-stereotypical roles.
It's something which Straight Outta Compton producer, Will Packer, conveyed in his well-balanced Facebook post on the issue, where he urged for change for the better:
To my Academy colleagues, WE HAVE TO DO BETTER. Period. The reason the rest of the world looks at us like we have no clue is because in 2016 it's a complete embarrassment to say that the heights of cinematic achievement have only been reached by white people. I repeat—it's embarrassing. It's unfair to the performers of color who sacrificed so much, laid it all on the line AND DELIVERED with their projects this year. It's also unfair to the white actors, writers, producers and directors who gave everything they had to create career defining content only to have it marred by the fact that a lack of diversity calls into question the legitimacy of The Academy's choices.
As someone of Middle Eastern descent, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve sighed and rolled my eyes at the “Arab Terrorists Up To No Good” trope that Hollywood enjoys rehashing. But if the DuVernay test, recent boycotts, and calls for change that have been made are anything to go by, it looks like a refreshing change may actually be in the air, and it's one which I welcome with open arms.