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Why Hollywood is still falling short in representation of women in film


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John Yang: In some ways, tomorrow night's Academy Awards marked big advances in diversity. Four of this year's 20 acting nominees are of Asian descent, the most ever. And last year more top movies starred women of color than in the previous 16 years. But there are still notable gaps, particularly for women behind the camera. None of the best director nominees is a woman and only one of the films up for best picture was directed by a woman. And there were nominations in any category for films with both black female leads and black female directors.

The University of Southern California has found that in Oscar's 95-year history, only 17% of nominees have been women and fewer than 2% have been women of color. What's more, only 9% of the directors of last year's top 100 earning films were women and less than 3% were women of color. Jeff Brown spoke with Rebecca Sun, who reports on diversity and inclusivity for the Hollywood Reporter.

Jeff Brown: Rebecca Sun, thanks so much for joining us. I want to start with the question of women behind the camera. Directors, writers, other important roles. You've looked at this over time, general terms first when you look at this Oscar season, what do you see?

Rebecca Sun: What I see, this Oscar season is something that's played out in years past, which is we are now getting films sort of in that larger conversation that are considered awards caliber directed by women, but it's still very difficult for them to make it into that final five cut at the Academy awards. And so this happened again, you know, Oscar so male, at least when we're talking about the directing category, even though people can actually now name specific women that would be considered subs.

Jeff Brown: This comes after a few years of successes for women, certainly in the director category, right?

Rebecca Sun: Yes, absolutely. And when we talk about success, we should also say that this is relative success, right. Certainly the fact that we've had, you know, Greta Gerwig in the conversation, that we had Chloe Zhao, that Jane Campion, you know, win Best Directing Oscars is -- it's light years from how it was simply a decade ago.

I think that there's such a difference between a trend and sustainable change. As long as we're still at a precarious point where year to year the fortunes of women can swing from two in a race to zero in a race, you're not solidly achieving a pipeline of systemic equity. We don't worry year to year if any men will make it into the race. That is literally a question that nobody has asked. But that's still a question for women. You know, will any women make it into the race this year? As long as that question still exists and is a realistic one, we haven't really achieved systemic change yet.

Jeff Brown: Now, another thing you've long looked at is Asian and Asian American actors. It's a notably big year in that regard. How big a moment, how big a sign of change would this be?

Rebecca Sun: You know, I do think that things began to change after Parasite in 2019. One basically every Oscar that it was nominated for, but it was not nominated in a single individual acting category. And that sort of emphasized a trend that we had seen in years past where films with predominantly Asian casts like The Last Emperor or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would be very acclaimed across the board but would receive no recognition for its individual actors.

This year's Oscars is a record high, with four Asian actors across the board being nominated. So that is very significant from the past, but I will say it's significant because it was so minimal to nonexistent before.

Jeff Brown: And criticism from people in Hollywood of color continues. One notable piece was Gina Prince-Bythewood, the Director of the Woman King.

Rebecca Sun: Yes, absolutely. It's notable because we are no longer in a media ecosystem where there aren't worthy performances, where there aren't awards caliber films about and made by black people. And this year, black women in particular, movies about black people, particularly when they're about black women and by black women, are seen as specialty films. They're seen as films that are not for a "general audience." They sometimes might be seen as homework or obligatory. You know, movies about black women are still kind of painted with an asterisk, and perhaps that affected its chances at the Oscars.

Jeff Brown: We all pay a special attention at this moment, right, at Oscar season. But really the issue is about the pipeline that kind of feeds into the movies that get made and even have a chance, right?

Rebecca Sun: Absolutely. And the pipeline is something that there are people in the industry who have been working on it for a very long time. I think that you are seeing those dividends begin to pay off in terms of more women getting shots at shooting studio movies, you know, movies in different genres than just, you know, romantic comedies and small domestic films. But award season is always the very tail end of that pipeline. It's one thing to get your movie greenlit, to be released, to be distributed, to be marketed and then to be recognized is kind of that final piece. And progress is slow, as was expected, but that pipeline is being built.

Jeff Brown: So, with all the attention on the Oscar films, this is a good chance maybe to tell our audience about some films that you love, that you wish more people got to see that didn't get the acclaim or the attention?

Rebecca Sun: One film that I thought, again, it was so small that I understand why not a lot of people saw it. But Aftersun, it's a first feature from a female director, Charlotte Wells. It's about a young girl who goes on a vacation with her father and tries to learn more about what his interior or in retrospect, is learning more about what his interior life was like. It's heavily implied that vacation was the last time she ever saw him.

I also really liked till, it's about the aftermath of the lynching of Emmett Till. But the way in which it's treated is really different from how I feel like filmmakers have traditionally treated stories about brutality against black people. It's very conscientious in what it chooses to show and what it chooses not to show. And in so doing, I think, conveys a very powerful message about the significance of the image, especially when it comes to how we depict racialized violence. I just thought it was a really instructive movie and not as exploitatively traumatic as I think some feared it would be.

Jeff Brown: Rebecca Sun of The Hollywood Reporter. Thank you very much.

Rebecca Sun: Thanks, Jeff.

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