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One statistic that sums up Hollywood’s diversity problem

Octavia Spencer won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2012 — for playing a maid, one of the few Oscar-winning roles available to black women.
Octavia Spencer won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2012 — for playing a maid, one of the few Oscar-winning roles available to black women.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

After an outcry over the Oscars excluding black actors from its top acting awards for the second year in a row, the New York Times's Brandon Thorp watched the 28 films — from 1954's Carmen Jones to 2013's Twelve Years a Slave — that led to Best Actor and Best Actress nominations for African Americans.

One of his conclusions was striking:

In the history of the Oscars, 10 black women have been nominated for best actress, and nine of them played characters who are homeless or might soon become so… No black woman has ever received a best-actress nomination for portraying an executive or even a character with a college degree.

All of the nominees' characters were poor women, Thorp notes. (The sole character who was not at risk of homelessness was Octavia Spencer's in The Help — and that character, Minnie, was a maid.) And the majority of Oscar-nominated roles for black men involved portraying characters who were arrested or incarcerated.

Thorp's piece helps quantify a well-known problem: Hollywood struggles not just to recognize stellar black performances but to tell a broader, richer set of stories about people of color in the first place.

As Roxane Gay wrote for Vulture in 2013 after seeing Twelve Years a Slave, which would go on to win Best Picture:

I am worn out by slavery and struggle narratives. I am worn out by broken black bodies and the broken black spirit somehow persevering in the face of overwhelming and impossible circumstance. There seems to be so little room at the Hollywood table for black movies that to earn a seat, black movies have to fit a very specific narrative… Filmmakers take note of this and keep giving Hollywood exactly what it wants. Hollywood showers these struggle narratives with the highly coveted critical acclaim… It is not that slavery and struggle narratives shouldn’t be shared but these narratives are not enough anymore.

Go deeper:

  • A study of 414 films released Monday found that only 28 percent of speaking parts went to nonwhite people — who make up 37 percent of the US population — and only 25 percent of women onscreen were over 40.
  • At the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg argues that changing Hollywood to make it less white and male will require a major cultural shift.
  • One of the sharpest commentaries on roles for nonwhite actors this year was an episode of Aziz Ansari's Netflix series Master of None. Ansari wrote about his experience for the New York Times Magazine: "When my phone rings, the roles I’m offered are often defined by ethnicity and often require accents."

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