In January, Kristen Stewart came perilously close to joining the parade of white actors drawing furor over their response to the #OscarsSoWhite protests.
Variety, reporting from the Sundance Film Festival, posted a clip of an interview with Stewart on January 25, and labeled it as her comment on the outcry over an overwhelmingly white slate of Oscar nominees. "Instead of sitting around and complaining about that, do something," Stewart said in the video. "Go write something; go do something."
Then Variety had to issue a humbling correction:
Correction: Kristen Stewart was addressing gender equality, not diversity, in this Variety video segment https://t.co/gDlQbTz0wQ— Variety (@Variety) January 26, 2016
It's not that Stewart's answer is that much more stellar now that we know it was about gender rather than racial disparity. It's that Variety was so keen to get this quote from her on the issue of the week that it completely swapped contexts without even realizing it was doing so. That seeming haste even extended to the misspelled URL: "kristen-stewart-diveristy-hollywood-oscars."
Ever since the Oscar nominations were announced and it became clear that talk of supporting diversity did not translate into tangible recognition, white actors have contributed astonishingly tone-deaf thoughts in droves. Michael Caine advised black actors to "be patient." Julie Delpy contended that it's harder to be a woman than to be African American (she quickly apologized). Charlotte Rampling, nominated this year for Lead Actress in 45 Years, suggested that the #OscarsSoWhite protest was "racist to whites." (She later said this was "misinterpreted.")
These answers are embarrassing and self-serving, the actors conflating their own experiences with those of minorities fighting against a stacked system — experiences that are impossible for them to know or fully understand.
But even as these actors make gaffes about the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood, there are countless producers, agents, directors, and executives who aren't getting the same kind of grilling — and they're the ones who most stand a chance of making real change.
Actors are the (airbrushed) face of the industry. Producers, agents, and executives are the ones who make most of the decisions.
While actors bear the brunt of publicity, and can certainly use their platform to call out inequality where they see it, they largely do not have the power to change the makeup of their projects. (I say "largely" because some actors, once they get to a certain level of success, can and do become producers in their own right — which is why going after a writer/producer/director like George Clooney for input makes more sense.)
The lion's share of real power in Hollywood lies with its behind-the-scenes players. Producers, agents, and directors rarely have the glossy profiles, red carpet looks, or motivation to keep us interested in their day-to-day lives.
Thus, they can operate in a publicity vacuum more than those making a living onscreen. When something like #OscarsSoWhite breaks, they're usually not the ones sitting on folding chairs at press junkets and putting their words on the record.
When they do speak out, it can be far more revealing — and not always flattering. In fact, one of the worst reactions to #OscarsSoWhite was from Schindler's List producer Gerald Molen, who went with the "protestors are just sore losers" argument in no uncertain terms.
"There is no racism except for those who create an issue," he told the Hollywood Reporter on January 22. "I say to all my co-members: Stop acting like spoiled brats. Look to the next awards show for recognition — if you deserve it."
The Hollywood Reporter went on to point out that Molen is more overtly conservative than many of his peers, having just produced Dinesh D'Souza's 2016: Obama's America. But Molen also produced Jurassic Park, Rain Man, Twister, Hook, Minority Report, and more. He is not an insignificant player — and he thinks people who point out that all-white nominees aren't representative are "spoiled brats."
Hollywood's offscreen representatives don't get the same scrutiny actors do — which lets them off the hook
Usually, though, behind-the-scenes power players are more reticent to address sensitive subjects publicly. A few clear examples come — fittingly enough — courtesy of Variety, whose January 26 cover story takes on the #OscarsSoWhite issue directly, even while admitting that Variety, with its deep connections and widespread influence in Hollywood, is far from blameless in the grander systemic scheme of things.
But not even Variety could get studios or agencies to talk about diversity beyond platitudes, or in many cases, even at all:
So, what are the heads of Hollywood’s six major studios saying about the lack of diversity in their executive ranks and in the content they produce? Three of the six — five of whom are white and all but one of whom are male — agreed to a request by Variety to speak on the record about the industry’s diversity problem.
Walt Disney's Alan Horn, Fox Filmed Entertainment's Jim Gianopulos, and Paramount Pictures' Brad Grey all said different versions of the same thing, which boils down to: "Diversity is important. We have to do better on diversity, and are working on it. Diversity!"
As for Hollywood's top agencies: Not one would speak to Variety. Agencies are notoriously protective of their own. They are, after all, the gatekeepers, the conduits between actors, directors, producers, and studios. But that's why their priorities in the #OscarsSoWhite conversation do, in fact, matter — and why their perpetual silence is so troubling.
Playing "gotcha" with actors might bring more biased attitudes to light, but it isn't going to help diversify the industry. Pushing those with the capacity to change the system, or at the very least shift their priorities from churning out more of the same stories with the same focuses, would go much further toward fixing the root causes of #HollywoodSoWhite.