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Hollywood won’t solve its diversity issues until the audience treats progressive films like blockbusters

Jennifer Lawrence Oscars
Reuters/Adrees Latif
The Academy’s diversity issues are getting harder and harder to hide.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Hollywood would like us to believe that it embodies progressive ideas—but a lot of this is CGI smoke and mirrors. While it may be comforting for liberals to look to the politics that certain films released during awards season represent, there is a wider apathy in Hollywood that speaks to an entirely different set of values.

In recent years, the industry has used the annual Academy Awards ceremony as as showcase for progressive politics. Strategic nominations for recent films like 12 Years A Slave, Selma, Lincoln, The Help, Dallas Buyer’s Club, and The Kids Are All Right have all championed diversity and civil rights—or at least appeared to.

The 2016/2017 awards season looks to be on the same track. Following an increase in racist incidents following Donald Trump’s US presidential election, the Golden Globes recently announced Best Drama nominations for Moonlight, a story following the life of a gay black man, and Lion, the based-on-a-true-story drama of an orphaned Indian boy.

Indeed, Moonlight has emerged as a Golden Globes favorite, with Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress nominations, as well as nods for Best Screenplay and Best Director for Barry Jenkins. (If he gets a directing Oscars nomination, Jenkins will be only the fourth black man ever to earn that distinction.) Fences, a film directed by and starring Denzel Washington that depicts the struggles of a former Negro League baseball player, is also generating considerable Oscar buzz. And then there’s Loving, the story of an embattled interracial relationship in the 1950s, which was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and is also likely to earn Oscar nominations.

Over the years, most of these kinds of awards-season films have been heralded by critics as politically powerful and socially important. Which makes it even more frustrating that so few people actually go see them.

In the new millennium, politically progressive films that win at awards shows but not at the box office are par for the course. The Hurt Locker, the 2009 film which cast a critical eye on the perpetual war against terror and famously earned the first Best Director win for a woman, grossed only $17 million domestically and is the least viewed Best Picture winner ever. Last year’s Best Picture winner Spotlight did a little better, earning $45 million domestically. But these numbers pale in comparison to the top-grossing film of the year, The Force Awakens, which made over $900 million in the US alone. Spotlight wound up #62 on the list of the 100 top-grossing films of 2015, behind gems like Paul Blart: Mallcop 2 and the universally maligned Fantastic Four reboot.

While of course Hollywood execs would be happy if politically motivated films earned more money, making these kinds of movies seems to serves a different purpose: Making the industry appear more humanistic than it actually is.

Last year’s #oscarssowhite controversy, a backlash against the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of the Academy, highlighted some of the inconsistencies in Hollywood’s projection of liberal ideals. The 2016 ceremony itself included Chris Rock’s politically charged hosting and a series of acceptance speeches that touched on environmental protection, gender inequality, and corporate-campaign finance. By associating itself with the very public liberalism of its most famous stars while operating in the free-market world of big blockbusters, Hollywood is trying to have its cake and it eat it, too.

In order to eschew risk, Hollywood often sequesters overtly political statements in films many will hear about, but few will see.

The double standard continues in the way that Hollywood has long forgiven acerbic opinions in the name of ticket sales. For example, awards love is currently being given to Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge despite the long-troubled actor’s previous anti-Semitic vitriol. And while an accusation of rape derailed the awards-season hopes of black actor and director Nate Parker’s Birth Of A Nation, sexual harassment allegations against Casey Affleck have done little to sideline Oscar hopes for Manchester By The Sea.

In order to be profitable, production studios are still trying to be all things to all people. In order to eschew risk, they often sequester overtly political statements in films many will hear about, but few will see.

And what of the films that will be widely viewed? This December’s Star War box-office juggernaut Rogue One incited conservative outrage when its screenwriter Chris Weitz tweeted that the film was the story of a multicultural group in opposition to a “white supremacist organization.” In the face of a proposed alt-right ban of the film, Disney CEO Bob Iger said, “It is not a film that is, in any way, a political film. There are no political statements in it, at all.”

The absurdity of this claim aside, Iger’s comments speak directly to the fact that corporate Hollywood has specific ideas about which films are allowed to appear political. And there is a reasonable argument to be made that the politics of contemporary blockbusters are actually more in line with traditional conservative values overall: These are often films where good and evil are absolute binaries, institutions are corrupt, and the exceptional (white) hero is offered as the only means by which society can be saved.

When it comes to liberal campaign donations, there are plenty of Hollywood players who put their money where their mouths are. In terms of the 2016 US presidential election, the list of Hillary Clinton’s biggest Hollywood donors was topped by Univision chairman Haim Saban, Legendary Entertainment chairman Thomas Tull, directors JJ Abrams and Steven Spielberg, and producer Jeffrey Katzenberg. There is no reason to think these men don’t actually believe in the politics they support with their considerable donations, but there is also no small irony in the fact that several of these donors have also produced many of the most-watched great-white-savior action films of the past decade. This emerging pattern of behavior sees corporate Hollywood co-opting progressivism while continuing to operate in a way that only serves the bottom line.

But if Hollywood is truly mercenary, perhaps that is where hope can be found. Rather than simply paying lip service to its progressive offerings, if we want to encourage the big production companies to become more truly liberal, we should go and buy tickets to the most overtly political of films. This way, we can collectively show the decision-makers that these are the kinds of stories we are willing to pay for.

And this week is a good time to do just that: Moonlight and Lion are still being shown in select cinemas. Hidden Figures, which came out on Christmas Day, tells the true story of NASA’s little-known black female pioneers, and Denzel Washington’s Fences also had a Christmas Day release.

Making a political statement at the box office might seem like a painfully small gesture. But in a world where a reality star has been elected president, it’s hard to deny the significance of trying to influence what Hollywood chooses to show us.

Correction: A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated the position of Clinton donor Haim Saban. Saban is the chairman of Univision Communications.

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