Why is society afraid to call out lack of BAME nominations at film awards for what it actually is?

  • Words by ITV News Multimedia Producer Amani Hughes

The lack of BAME nominations at this year’s film awards made for depressing reading, but why is it hard for society to recognise it for what it is?

When Joaquin Phoenix took to the stage to accept his Bafta for Best Actor, he spoke of “systemic racism” in the industry, where people of colour are made to feel “not welcome.”

But why is it when a well meaning, high-profile, white actor, talks out against racial inequality within the industry, the world pays attention, despite the same point being made by ethnic minorities for decades?

This is the question posed by Clive Nwonka, London School of Economics Fellow in Film Studies at the Department of Sociology.

“The question is what kind of power relationships do we have in society when powerful white people are pushing back against certain inclinations, it becomes worthy of notice and discussion, whereas black filmmakers themselves, experience those issues face on…and have been saying it for the last 20 years,” Dr Nwonka told ITV News.

The Hollywood image of what a director is, is still someone like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, not someone like Greta Gerwig, Melina Matsoukas or Lulu Wang.

And it can be argued there is a preconception about what makes a film or director Oscar or Bafta worthy, one that has a "particular set of values attached to it", Dave O'Brien, Chancellors Fellow of Cultural and Creative Industries at the University of Edinburgh said.

"Film is quite subjective, the idea of quality is something that is debatable but when we get into it, ideas about quality still have assumptions attached to it and these are assumptions that are present in everyday society," Dr O'Brien said.

In the same vein, these defined set of values would categorise 1917 as a valuable film and siphon off Blue Story as a cultural film.

Dr Nwonka said: "I think often the presence of ethnic minorities in films determines how the film is valued, in both the industry and culturally and socially. Blue Story is a very British film, and a very London experience that would never be able to penetrate different international markets, in the way 1917 can purely because of its budget.

"I think there is a big difference between what is a good film and what is considered to be culturally valuable."

Why should it be that films like Blue Story, Queen and Slim, and Hustlers have to be valued in terms of cultural diversity, but are not judged purely on merit?

Film producer and Director at large of Birds' Eye View Mia Bays said the industry is still "very set on the big names, the grand-masters".

"You have a year where you have got Tarantino and Scorsese and everyone just goes into sleepwalking mode and says, oh those are the best films," she told ITV News.

"On the whole, the big branches of the industry that are about studio product and mainstream, they just vote for their own, and their own being white able-bodied and male."

In America, the USC Annenberg study monitors diversity in the entertainment industry.

Among the 1,200 top films from 2007 to 2018, 6% (80) of directors were black or African American and 3.1% (42) were Asian or Asian American and out of the 80 black directors, just five were women and of the 42 Asian directors, three were female.

For black directors, 2018 was a banner year, as 16 black directors worked across the 100 top grossing films of 2018, compared to eight in 2007 and six in 2017.

However, these numbers hardly scream equal representation and when the base level starts so low, progress is incredibly slow.

Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya in Queen & Slim received no nominations. Credit: PA

In recent years, steps have been made to diversify the membership of the Academy, after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy's president, was urged to change the demographic of voters.

The proportion of female members increased from 25% in 2015 to 32% in 2019 and the percentage of member who are people of colour rose from 8% to 16%.

However, the make-up of Bafta's membership is not as transparent.

When approached by ITV News to reveal the number of women and BAME figures among the membership, Bafta said it had announced a "full and wide ranging review of the whole awards process".

This year's Bafta nominations did not recognise a single person of colour in the main acting categories and no women were nominated in the best director category.

But the conversation around inequality in film should not just be centred on the number of films made by women or people of colour, but distribution, Ms Bays said.

"The films that are showing massively in the award's seasons are the films that have massive distribution campaigns behind them," she said.

Not everyone has the same opportunities available.

Finance and access to social networking events are a key way to enter the elitist world of entertainment, and to promote your film.

"We have to recognise there will always be, irrespective of gender, race, class origin, people who want to make films," Dr O'Brien said.

"The question is whether the system we have presents those groups with additional barriers in an already difficult industry."

The issue is how do you fix a system that has structural racism at its core?

Dr Nwonka said in the same way the #MeToo movement propelled the lack of gender equality in the film industry into society’s consciousness, a similar wave of momentum is now needed to eradicate racial inequality.

"#MeToo exposed sexism in the industry; the difference between being included and the experience of women, which was overt sexism," he said.

“It may be that we need a #MeToo movement for race, when people come out with anecdotes of their experiences in the film industry over the last five, 10, 20 years.

"Because until we have that testimony, we will never have that momentum that we saw for #MeToo, a real shift in the way we talk around these things as well.”