Why the real problem isn't #OscarsSoWhite

Story highlights

  • Gene Seymour: Problem not just #OscarsSoWhite, it's #OscarsSoGray: Hollywood avoids diversity of skin tone AND temperament
  • He says TV, theater, literature far more plugged in to multicultural America, while Hollywood cluelessly relegates diversity to niche markets

Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)The problem with the Academy Awards -- and with Hollywood -- isn't that they're too white. It's that they're too gray -- as in colorless -- rather than colorblind.

In the weeks since calls were made for a black boycott of this year's Oscar ceremonies, the Internet has been choked with both support and outrage over its goals.
There is the rancorous back-and-forth between those, like Michael Caine, who insist that patience from African-Americans in the movie industry is the best tonic, and others, like Spike Lee, who believe the promises by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and major studios to do better are a start, but nowhere near enough to rectify generations of neglect, benign and otherwise, toward minorities and movies.
    The Academy has responded by setting in motion a process to broaden the diversity of its voting members. The major studios say they're going to do better in the future.
    Fine. But this controversy and the myriad responses to it seem oblivious to the fact that when compared with other art forms, movies are even further behind the times than Hollywood realizes.
    All of which was confirmed by findings released this week of a study conducted by the Media, Diversity and Social Chance Initiative at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Among the study's conclusions: Minorities represented little more than 28% of speaking characters in films and TV series, which is 10% less than their presence in the general population.
    Even without such findings, it's been clear for some time that to major studios, movies about black, Latino, Asian and other minorities are considered "niche markets," boutique items that sell well among their respective ethnic categories, but don't travel well beyond them. Big genre franchises, some with multicultural casts but with little multicultural content, are more like it.
    Try this theory for size, Hollywood: When you measure success by proven formulas, you get... formula product -- mostly generic, lacking real surprises, and in the end, with little to remember about any of it.
    In other words, gray.
    The world, whose audiences you seek, is filled with vibrant colors; not just of skin, but also of personality and temperament. People are, at the very least, curious when they see color variations. Don't narrow these colors. Expand them. Embrace them.
    Republican presidential candidates have lost elections thinking they're selling themselves to a "Leave it to Beaver"/"Brady Bunch" universe while, in the present day, "Modern Family" is what people are watching (in reruns, no less). Get with the program, Hollywood. Diversity is a world of wonders, not something to contain and gloss over.
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    Independent movies are way ahead of the studios here, as they often are. Example: One of 2015's best movies, which you'll find nowhere on the list of Oscar nominees, was "Tangerine," a low-budget indie about two transsexual prostitutes spending a dreary, desperate Christmas Eve thrashing along the near-deserted side streets of Los Angeles, dealing with frustrated romance and broken promises.
    Saying the least, writer-director Sean Baker's long day's journey into night is hardly the kind of production that draws Academy interest, given its unwavering focus on people at society's margins and its often-unsettling intimacy in tone and content.
    Plus the whole thing was shot on iPhone 5s, which doesn't endear such an enterprise to the craft union members who comprise most of the Academy voting blocs.
    Yet "Tangerine," despite its small scale, quirky premise and even quirkier characters, is fresher, funnier and more humane in its outlook than more expensively mounted comedies dare to be these days. More importantly -- and more to the point being made here -- it's a movie that seems more connected to what's happening now in culture and society than most big-screen movies.
    Put another way, it's as close to those energies as, say, Broadway's hottest musical, the multicultural hip-hop historical pastiche, "Hamilton," or just about any series on cable television from "The Wire" to "Orange is the New Black" to "Transparent" and so on.
    Theater, television and literature have apparently figured out what the movies haven't: Diversity isn't something that needs to be accommodated or negotiated into the marketplace through "niches" or compartments. Diversity IS the marketplace. And the rest of the world, whose audiences are coveted in even greater numbers than those in America, knows it, too.
    I'll give Hollywood the benefit of the doubt and assume that if they didn't know it before, they know it now. But because it is Hollywood, it'll take years before this knowledge translates and prevails on the big screen.
    And those who jump angrily on movies need to remember that things are in fact somewhat better: This new conversation we've been having about movies and diversity wouldn't have reached this level of intensity as far back as the 1980s, 1990s and even the aughts.
    I should know. I've been writing about this topic for almost 40 years now. I really hope I don't have to write about it again in another 10.