Screen and Stage in Need of Color


(Adapted for print from our previous coverage of diversity in Denver theatre and Hollywood. Part 1 available here and part two available here.)

Films and television offer narratives of the lived world. A person’s favorite movie is considered basic information, a question asked within a few hours of meeting someone. Disney flicks act as children’s babysitters. So what happens when the world’s most well-circulated stories are written, directed, and performed by white people?

On Jan. 14, the 2016 Academy Award nominations were announced, leading to an uproar from moviegoers. For the second year in a row, the 20 acting categories were occupied entirely by white actors.

“[The Oscars are] reflective of a larger problem we have of not listening well to diverse voices,” said Jeremy Dehn, a filmmaker and College of Arts and Media instructor at CU Denver. “Listening to each other is how we come to understand each other, and it’s also how we learn and grow— by thinking outside of our own narrow perspectives. So if we’re only hearing stories from a few perspectives, we might not even be aware of all the opportunities we’re missing.”

“People are begging for representation. Companies will the the opportunity to profit from it.”

Biz Schaugaard

CU Denver Alumnus | College of Arts and Media

Of the 1,740 acting nominations the Oscars have given in its 88-year run, only 66 of those nominees have been black. 15 have won. Nearly 20 percent of Americans are black, yet significantly less than 0.5 percent of black actors have been so much as nominated for the most prestigious award in entertainment.

Whitewashed Oscar nominations are a result of a whitewashed Hollywood. In contrast, the theater industry celebrated a year of nearly unprecedented inclusion. 2015’s most successful Broadway debut, Hamilton, boasts a majority non-white cast in its portrayal of America’s founding fathers. The role of Hermione Granger in the upcoming West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was given to South American actress Doma Dumezweni. That’s not to say diverse representation on the stage isn’t wrought with its own set of challenges.

“Actors of color in Denver—not just black actors, but Asians, Latinos— are frustrated because it starts with the playwrights,” said Dr. Catherine Wiley, associate professor of English and playwright herself. “There aren’t enough playwrights of color who are getting produced, and not enough white playwrights writing for actors of color.”

When bringing her play about homeless women, Sheltered, to the stage, Wiley encountered significant trials in reflecting the diversity she specified on her cast list. “We had two different casts for Sheltered, and I was insistent both times: ‘We have to get an actress of color,’” Wiley said. “I was told by two directors and one producer that it was very hard to find good actors of color in the Denver community, which I don’t believe.”

Though both productions of Sheltered did cast its actors diversely, local minority actors are pushed to the margins in additional ways. “Look at the Denver Performing Arts Center,” said Wiley. “Every once in awhile, they will produce a play by an African American or Latino playwright, and the cast will include mostly people of color—but even though Denver is crawling with wonderful actors of color, 95 percent of the cast is brought in from out of town.”

“The Performing Arts Center is changing: The fact that they’re letting local playwrights be in the Colorado New Play Summit is a big deal,” Wiley said. “Three years ago, that never would have happened. They’re now especially focusing on women and women of color.”

Norms currently, though, hold that certain voices are ignored, which spreads the idea that those voices aren’t valuable. Whether this happens intentionally or not is irrelevant— there are consequences. Those consequences worsen, though, when the discrimination is calculated.

When Disney allegedly told Hasbro Toys to exclude women characters from Star Wars merchandise because boys won’t buy toys with girls on them, their decision communicated that boys shouldn’t like stories about women, and told girls that their narratives are lesser than men’s.

“It’s all about money,” said Biz Schaugaard, a CU Denver alum. Schaugaard has worked on seven film sets and countless theater productions since graduating. “Maybe now that people are begging for representation, movie companies will see the opportunity to profit from it.”

Niko Sotolongo, a current CU Denver Film and Television major, picked up on the same problem. “Bigbudget movies need to make their investment back, so they cast wellknown actors,” Sotolongo said. “We need to move more towards what the role is asking for and less of, ‘Can I make my money back by putting Bradley Cooper in my movie?’”

By that logic though, Disney took a step backwards with its handling of female action heroes—its casting of the then-unknown John Boyega might be read as a risk for a studio of its size.

The people of CU Denver want to do more. Stacey McDole, another Film and Television major, is optimistic about how local culture is already changing. “We have several high-profile film festivals throughout the state specifically for women filmmakers,” McDole said. “In particular, the Women and Film Voices Film Festival, and also the Boulder International Film Festival, which was founded and is still run by women.”

When racism is systemic and institutionalized, it becomes harder to recognize. Even movements trying to advance the cause fall into old traps— like believing that people of color simply aren’t trying to be included in the entertainment industry—which slows progress. But people are always trying to push the momentum of progress forward, even if it has to crawl.

Sotomongo sees change coming directly from filmmakers. “A lot of us are trying to write with characters that are more open-ended; you shouldn’t have someone in mind before you begin casting,” Sotolongo said.

In response to criticism about their lack of diversity, the Academy hosted a press conference to address diversifying the makeup of their membership. “This is not about political correctness,” said CEO Dawn Hudson.

“The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” said Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs. On top of implementing changes to double the presence of women and people of color within their voting ranks, the Academy directed its audience to the more pressing issue: An award show that can’t nominate at least 10 percent of people who aren’t white.

“We tend to value films for their originality, which usually means they have a perspective we haven’t encountered before,” Dehn said. “I’m hoping the academy makes good on its promise to recognize the value in that, and if they do, we’ll all benefit from the results.”

CU Denver Film and Televison

Catherine Wiley
Associate Professor | College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Jeremy Dehn
Instructor | College of Arts and Media


—Taylor Kirby

photo courtesy

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