Creator says it's not just about black and white
Nielsen study shows black content is resonating
April Reign is not just advocating for black Hollywood.
The creator of #OscarsSoWhite is encouraged by the diversity of this awards season, with films like “Hidden Figures,” “Fences” and “Moonlight” being recognized.
But Reign wants the entertainment industry to expand representation beyond just African Americans.
“What I’ve been seeing, unfortunately, in the media quite a bit, is because we’ve had recognition of black artists and film makers this year, that #OscarsSoWhite is somehow over,” she told CNN. “There’s been a dearth of nominations and support of people from other traditionally under-represented communities.”
Reign, managing editor for Broadway Black, developed the hashtag in January 2015, after being frustrated by the lack of diversity among the year’s Oscar nominees.
#OscarsSoWhite became shorthand for the lack of opportunities and recognition for people of color in Hollywood.
“#OscarsSoWhite is about all races and genders and sexual orientations,” Reign said. “In 2017, why haven’t we had an LGBT rom-com? We have the phenomenal Sir Patrick Stewart playing a disabled superhero in ‘X Men,’ but why haven’t we had a disabled actor or actress playing a superhero?”
“With respect to cultural appropriation, I think the Asian American and Pacific Islander community has taken a step back in 2016,” Reign added. “We see ‘Ghost In The Shell’ with Scarlett Johansson, and ‘The Great Wall’ with Matt Damon, [Johannson was cast in a role of an Asian character and Damon’s film has been criticized for the ‘white savior’ trope in a film about China’s Great Wall] where there is no respect for the culture and genre there.”
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Reign said she’s not looking for quotas – just “opportunities for people from marginalized communities.”
Recalcitrant studio heads still foster the belief that films with people of color can be fiscally risky, Reign said.
She points to the recent success of “Hidden Figures,” which stars three African American women, as proof those studio heads are wrong.
Made for a relatively small budget of $25 million, the film about the little known black female mathematicians and engineers at NASA in the 1960s, has grossed more than $144 million.
The film held the top spot at the box office for two consecutive weeks and scored Oscar nominations for Octavia Spencer for best supporting actress, best adapted screenplay and best picture.
Reign argues that good storytelling – with good writing and acting – will win out in Hollywood, no matter the color.
She said she sees encouragement in what’s happening on the small screen.
Television shows like “Atlanta,” “Insecure” and “Black-ish” are winning both critical acclaim and strong fan bases.
These and other projects add up to “an influx of entertainment that reflects the black experience,” Reign said.
“I use that phrase very intentionally, as opposed to saying ‘black film’ or ‘black TV show,’ because we have a juggernaut like ‘Empire’ that is killing the ratings every week and it’s not just black people who are watching that show, obviously,” she said. “What does a ‘black TV show’ mean?’ ‘Empire’ is about a dysfunctional family in the music industry that just happens to be black.”
A recent Nielsen study found that “several programs with a predominantly black cast or a main storyline focusing on a black character are drawing substantial non-black viewership.”
“While this isn’t the first time in history that a TV program with a black lead has drawn non-black audiences – think of “The Jeffersons,” “Sanford and Son” and “The Cosby Show” – what’s unusual now is the sheer number of such programs that are carrying cross-cultural appeal,” the study said.
“Storylines with a strong black character or identity are crossing cultural boundaries to grab diverse audiences and start conversations,” said Andrew McCaskill, senior vice president, Communications and Multicultural Marketing, at Nielsen. “That insight is important for culture and content creators.”
As for the future of #OscarsSoWhite, Reign believes there is still work to be done.
“#OscarsSoWhite will continue to be relevant until all people, regardless of who you are or where you’re from, can go into a movie theater – not just right before the deadline for awards season – and see themselves represented on the screen,” she said.