Where’s the Diversity, Hollywood? 85 Years of the Academy Awards

Note: This infographic was updated to reflect winners through 2015.

The Academy Awards will soon unveil the very best in filmmaking in 2014. As the prediction chatter ricochets around the web, our curiosity about the level of racial and gender representation of the Academy Awards is the focus of our next Diversity Gap study. We reviewed the Academy’s entire 85-year history and the results were staggeringly disappointing, if not surprising in light of our past Diversity Gap studies of The Tony AwardsThe Emmy Awardsthe children’s book industry, The New York Times Top 10 Bestseller List, Sci-Fi and Fantasy Films, US politics, and Silicon Valley where we analyzed yearly/multi-year samplings and found a disturbingly consistent lack of diversity.

Diversity Gap in the Academy Awards
Academy Award infographic, updated 2015 (click for larger image)


Since the Academy Awards was founded 85-years ago:

  • Only one woman of color (1%) has ever won the Academy Award for Best Actress
  • Only seven men of color (9%) have ever won the Academy Award for Best Actor
  • Only one woman (1%) has ever won the Academy Award for Best Director

An interview with independent filmmakers helps give a glimpse of the current climate of Hollywood today.

Gina Prince-Bythewood
Gina Prince-Bythewood
is a writer/director for television and film. Her credits include Love and Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees, and the upcoming film Beyond the Lights, which will be released November 14, 2014.

Iyin Landre is an American actress/filmmaker currently living in Río de Janeiro, Brazil. Her first feature film, Me + You, is now in pre-production.

Jason Chan

Jason Chan is an Australian actor/writer/director and one of the founding partners of BananaMana Films, a creative production company based in Singapore. BananaMana recently completed its first thirteen-episode TV drama, What Do Men Want?, and is gearing up to start season two and a film in 2014.

Kelvin YuKelvin Yu is a Taiwanese American writer currently working on the Fox animated series Bob’s Burgers. A Los Angeles native, Yu studied theater and communications at UCLA. His acting credits include Milk, Star Trek, Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip, and The Shield. He also has a small white dog named Yuki that used to live in New York. Neither of them is fixed.

Jason Low: Gina, since writing and directing your independent film Love and Basketball, how has the climate of filmmaking changed? Is it easier or more difficult to get a film made that captures your ideals AND that is more accurately representative from a gender and minority perspective? 

Gina Prince-Bythewood: Unfortunately it has gotten considerably harder to get a film made that has non-white leads, or a female lead.The numbers do not surprise me because very few Academy Award level films with non-white leads are being green lit. —Gina Prince-Bythewood

JL: Iyin, in our initial conversation, when I asked you if you felt you had a shot at roles that were ethnically ambivalent, you mentioned that black actresses had a better shot at these types of roles because they are seen as American, especially to international audiences, whereas Asians are not seen as Americans. I found this really interesting. Perhaps you could expound on your response while including your observations about the international marketplace and African American actresses.

Iyin Landre: Man, this is such a complex and at times mind-boggling subject, the issues of race and identity. I’ve actually been thinking about it a lot since I got to Brazil, probably because I’ve had to deal with it more. I think to an international audience, Asian Americans are not perceived as being American. We are perceived as being Asian, from the motherland, speaking Japanese (or so I’ve encountered).

I don’t know that an African American actress would have to defend her nationality as much as I do, but I mean, hopefully all this changes when people meet me and they begin to wrap their minds around how I can look Asian but be American. (Of course, the grand irony in all of this is that I’m having these discourses about my “origin” in perfect English!)

JL: Gina, when you look at the Diversity Gap in the Academy Award infographic, do the numbers surprise you? If not, what are some of the mitigating factors that explain why the statistics look as they do? 

GPB: The numbers do not surprise me because very few Academy Award level films with non-white leads are being greenlit. Until this changes, the abysmal numbers will not change. The box office drives which films get greenlit. The hope is that with this year’s success of a variety of films with African American leads, Hollywood will be more open to taking chances.

Every actor has a right to say JL: Jason, you have a number of war stories to share about running up against race related obstacles during your acting career.

Jason Chan: After I completed medical school and worked in the hospital system for about four years, I got into drama school at NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Arts). NIDA was made famous by many of its graduates: Mel Gibson, Judy Davis, Cate Blanchet, Baz Lurhman. We noticed even in drama school that ethnic actors were not only a minority, it was also rare that they were given lead roles. I fought for my chance at a lead in my final year and was successful. My own Australian agent, ICS, recounted to me a story about a meeting with casting directors. At the meeting, actors’ agents were told that if a role was described as “31 year old, Lawyer,” it meant “31 year old, Caucasian.” The default is always Caucasian unless something else is specifically asked for. Another friend of mine, of Indian descent, had been cast by the director of a new Australian TV drama. The network apparently had problems with his role and asked why they couldn’t cast “someone white” in his place, since the role wasn’t specifically Indian. This is the problem.

It is pretty clear that certain countries remain extremely Anglo-centric, and certainly in Australia that was a problem for me. That’s why I moved to Asia—Singapore specifically. At first I didn’t like the move. It felt like I had somehow given up or failed, but there was more to it. This short helps to explain part of it.

I’ve heard many Asian Australian actors say “I can’t stand it when they ask me to speak in broken English in a bad Asian accent.” My answer to them is, “Don’t do it then. You’re just perpetuating a false stereotype.” Every actor has a right to say no. I’ve said no many times, sometimes at the cost of a job.

When I played the green power ranger in Power Rangers Ninja Storm, I spoke at length to the head writer/ producer and the costume department to subvert the stereotype. I played the geeky, computer genius that was going to become the final power ranger of the team. I told them I’d only do this if I could subvert the stereotype by being a cutting, sarcastic, charming geek who then becomes the most powerful of the group. They were very responsive to my concerns about stereotype and worked with me to develop the character. The green ranger ended up single handedly saving the team from near destruction during the series. I now have many ethnic fans who see me (or my character) as a role model.

When I first started auditioning in Singapore I was amazed by my own reaction to getting lead roles. I would think, Wait, I can’t have the lead role—I’m Asian!! I was used to auditioning for minor roles or ethnically specific roles in Australia. Among my Asian actor friends almost all of them will say, “I’m sick of being asked to speak in broken English.” Singapore was obviously different and it has allowed me to grow as an actor and to develop my own language and stories.

***Other Ways to Get Film and Media Projects Made Outside of Hollywood***

JL: Iyin, how did the independent film Me + You come to be?

IL: I was thinking about this the other day as I turned in quarter steps in my mini shower here in Brazil, tracing the experiences that have led me here.

I’ve always known that I wanted to be more than an actor. I’ve always wanted to create, tell my own stories. After acting in LA for several years, I realized that there was a ceiling to the opportunities that were coming my way, especially being an Asian American actress. So I took things into my own hands and learned how to write, produce, and direct. This way I could make my own movies and not have to wait for someone else to cast me in one.

During a screenwriting class, I came up with the premise for this feature for which I’m currently in pre-production. The story is about an American girl who travels to Brazil and falls in love with a drug dealer from the favelas. It’s gritty, thrilling, exciting—everything that I love about independent cinema.I realized that there was a ceiling to the opportunities that were coming my way, especially being an Asian-American actress. —Iyin Landre

After I finished the screenplay, I brainstormed the best way to raise money to shoot the feature. Since I had some airline miles that I’d been saving, I decided to fly down to Brazil by myself and shoot a trailer for the movie. I felt that if I could show what the movie would look like, feel like, I would be able to raise the funding for it.

JL: Iyin, did Kickstarter play a major role in helping raise funds to finance your independent film?

IL: Kickstarter was a whirlwind. Originally I didn’t want to do Kickstarter because I knew how tedious it would be, and how awkward it is to ask friends for money. But a few other factors came into play, and in mid-August, I launched my Kickstarter campaign. I set the goal at $75K and it did indeed become a full time job, emailing, reaching out, Facebooking, Tweeting. I raised close to $15K through my social network the first three weeks or so, but with not many days left, I had to re-strategize. I dug to the core of why I was making this movie, what was spurring me on, and decided to shoot a new video. We emailed the new video out to several websites with big followings and Upworthy.com picked it up with forty-three hours left in the campaign. It was a true miracle how we met our goal, raising a whopping $62K in the last two days.

JL: Jason, tell us about your new production company, BananaMana Films.

JC: I have decided to take up the fight from this part of the world. The best I can do is to produce, write, and direct content that puts Asian faces on the screen. People need to see faces of all color on TV and in film so they become the norm. We’ve established a production company, BananaMana Films, which has just completed it’s first thirteen-episode TV drama. My business partner, Christian Lee, and I wrote, directed, and produced the series and it will air on local TV next year. Hopefully it will be successful and we’ll get the opportunity to keep producing. So far the feedback has been tremendous.

With our production company we can now produce content that puts Asian faces on TV and hopefully soon the bigger screen. We do it without question or apology. Asians are not the minority and they don’t speak in a “funny” way. They speak English perfectly like everyone else and they can play any role. The key is to cast color blind, never to look at race as a deciding factor. In our TV show we have Indian, Malay, and Chinese actors, basically anyone who can act the part.

JL: Kelvin, Gina have you seen any working models of production companies that are (a) doing something to move the needle on promoting more diverse projects, and (b) commercially successful?

GPB: I think the independent world is still the best incubator of diverse projects with diverse casts. However, with continued success, studios will follow the trend.

I sometimes describe Tyler Perry as the Karl Rove of Hollywood. —Kelvin YuKelvin Yu: Maybe the best current example of how the market and diversity can dovetail is Tyler Perry. I sometimes describe Tyler Perry as the Karl Rove of Hollywood. It’s a joke, of course, but what I mean is that both guys, in a sense, took advantage of a previously untapped well. In Rove’s case, first in the early 1980s with Lee Atwater and then eventually with George Bush in 2000, he took the Republican Party and essentially said to them, “Listen, there is this small, but extremely fanatical group of people way out on the outskirts. Come with me and I will take you to the promised land.” We all know what happened next. The party bet the house on a fringe demographic that was passionate and easily galvanized. And it worked. Those people turned out to be all they needed to obtain a slim majority of the vote. 

In an analogous way, I think Tyler Perry emerged about ten or fifteen years ago by introducing Hollywood to a market that it never even realized existed. Prior to Tyler Perry, the African American movie going profile catered to urban interests (read Hip Hop and gang-related). Studios assumed black movies were New Jack City, FridayHouse Party and Juice. By the time Perry comes around, he’s educating the studios that there is a black middle/upper class. They are family oriented, socially conservative, and often religious. They love comedy, sometimes they like cross-dressing grandmas, and most important, they go to the movies. A lot.

Perry was right. And it paid off. He can make a movie for less than ten million dollars that will gross twenty million opening weekend, and he caters to an audience that was previously undiscovered. It’s like he’s pulling dollars out of the air.

But for the purposes of our discussion, this is a good example of the intersection of profit and diversity.

JL: Jason, What are some things that people can do to support non-Hollywood projects and encourage diversity in their viewing habits and choices?

JC: We need more people of minority races creating content that is rich in diversity and culture.

We need to watch films of other countries and support films from countries that don’t own the distribution network. Some of the best films in the world are from Japan and Korea, and yet they have limited distribution because Hollywood controls most of the world’s cinemas. This is changing with the internet. I would encourage everyone to watch and share films from all countries to get a more balanced view of the world, and to see that there is a thriving film and TV industry outside of Hollywood. In fact, it’s more than thriving. In my opinion, films from Asia are shaping many of the films coming out of Hollywood. Korea in particular is redefining storytelling all the time. The Koreans have the most refreshing TV dramas I’ve seen in a decade.

We need to support minorities going into the arts. This can only benefit the depth and breadth of content that gets made.

Finally, don’t support films with stereotypes. If you see stereotypes in a film, talk about them and don’t stand for such depictions of people of color. Stereotypes are the seeds of racism.


Read our 2015 follow up post with updated numbers.

This is not an isolated incident, but a wide reaching societal problem.
Read more Diversity Gap studies on:

The Tony Awards
The Emmy Awards
The children’s book industry
The New York Times Top 10 Bestseller List
US politics
Sci-Fi and Fantasy Films
Silicon Valley

Further resources on how to teach content and visual literacy using Lee & Low Books’ infographics series on the Diversity Gap:

Using Infographics In The Classroom To Teach Visual Literacy

For press inquiries or permission to reprint, please contact Hannah Ehrlich at hehrlich[at]leeandlow[dot]com.

88 thoughts on “Where’s the Diversity, Hollywood? 85 Years of the Academy Awards”

  1. One thing to note: we counted Yul Brynner as a person of color when categorizing. Brynner was Russian but identified as part Mongolian (his full ancestry included Swiss, Russian, Buryat, Romani, Jewish, and Mongolian roots). It’s so difficult to put people in categories for the sake of studies like this that ultimately we defer to how people self-identify. That being said, if you choose not to count Brynner as a person of color, the lack of diversity is even more pronounced.

    Also, to underscore the stats above, UCLA’s Center for African American Studies just issued their ‘Hollywood Diversity Report’ which confirms similar statistics: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-st-diversity-film-tv-20140212,0,5147488.story#ixzz2ttw0Unh6

    The lead author of the report, Darnell Hunt, says it best: “The motion picture and TV academies are overwhelmingly white and male and they’ve been setting the standards for what they feel is successful or funny or good. But the demographics are changing and those standards are not as solid now. Increasing diversity should happen not just for the social good, but because it makes perfect business sense.”

  2. Another thing to note in this study is the lack of gender equality. Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to have ever won Best Director, despite the fact that there are several directors who are women making excellent films. In an interview with the NY Times, “Boys Don’t Cry” director, Kimberly Peirce, mentions the intense double standards that female directors face: “If female directors are driven and single-minded and want to protect their actors as Kim does, they’re problematic. If it’s a man, he’s passionate.” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/29/magazine/carrie-is-back-so-is-kimberly-peirce.html?_r=1&

    In 2002, Halle Berry became the first woman of color to win an Oscar for Best Actress, but what happened after that? She starred in several movies that did OK at the box office and people occasionally saw her in the
    tabloids and on magazine covers. In an article in Forbes, there’s mention of the fact that because Halle Berry is a middle-aged African American woman, no one has roles for her. http://www.forbes.com/sites/dorothypomerantz/2013/03/14/why-cant-halle-berry-catch-a-break/ The writer of this article, Dorothy Pomerantz, asks if women in Hollywood struggle because of racism and sexism, and she admits that she doesn’t have a solid answer. After looking at this infographic though, it definitely seems like a possibility.

  3. Additionally, the chances of a person of color winning an Academy Award this year isn’t much better than previous years. In fact, there isn’t even a non-white nominee in the Best Actress category (shocking, really).

    Out of 20 nominees, there are three PoC nominated:

    Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”

    Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”

    Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”

    On a brighter note, two of the five nominees for Best Director are people of color:

    Alfonso Cuarón, “Gravity”
    Steve McQueen, “12 Years A Slave”

    Here’s hoping that the 2015 Academy Awards has one person of color in each category, at the very least.

  4. Yul Brynner was a white Russian (in every sense of the word). He claimed some Mongol or other Asiatic ancestry, like many Russians do, but I would see this as the equivalent of a white American who claims a Cherokee great-grandmother.

    Oddly, you missed Best Actor winners Jose Ferrer (1950), a Puerto Rican, and F. Murray Abraham (1984), who is half Assyrian.

    Hilary Swank’s maternal grandmother was of Mexican descent.

  5. Thanks, Bee. We have updated the infographic with some of the additions we were able to verify. We have been on the fence for a while as to whether or not to include Yul Brynner as a POC since he did self-identify as someone with Asian heritage, but we recognize that this is not a perfect solution. Equally so for Hilary Swank, who we did not add to the infographic – though there are mentions of her Mexican and Native heritage on her grandmother’s side, it was not something we could confirm, and she does not self-identify with either of those groups (as far as we could tell). So we decided to leave her off. The truth is that the person of color/Caucasian dichotomy is not a clear distinction but rather a spectrum, and any attempts we make such as this one to label people are going to be inherently imperfect. We hope this infographic still achieves the goal of illustrating Hollywood’s consistent problem with diversity.

  6. Since you posted a link to this infographic on CCBC-net I’ve been pondering this and all the issues this month’s discussion has raised. The biggest takeaway for me has been that I need to pay more attention. While I certainly do this when recommending books to my students (preservice teachers), I don’t always look at the larger culture around me. However, I’ve been so focused on these “multicultural” issues (a word I really dislike, but one I don’t have a substitute for, as non-white seems most appropriate but may be too crass) that I’m finally starting to “see” more of these inequities. Take for example the Today show early this week celebrating the new host of Late Night, Seth Meyers. In looking at the hosts of the Tonight Show, Late Show, Late Night, and others, you’ll find a wealth of white males. I suspect that like the makers of movies, most of the producers and writers are white as well. While some of them have supporting casts (musicians) that are POC, these are not the folks that are center stage. Why is that?

    Thank you for sharing this information and for making me think and rethink the world around me.

  7. Tricia, thanks for writing and I am glad you are taking our studies to heart. Inequality is a problem ingrained in our society at almost every level. Media representation is only the tip of the iceberg.

    Here’s a link to another post we wrote about how to use infographics to promote critical thinking in the classroom: http://wp.me/py0i0-25G

  8. Tricia, you have a great point about the late-night hosts, and the way that they get written about in the press is the perfect example of the kind of thing we’re talking about–it’s not just Hollywood with the problem, but the whole system that supports this Hollywood system. Chelsea Handler, who is the only woman to host a late-night show competing with The Tonight Show and those others, just wrote in the HuffPo about how the New York Times referred to her in parentheses, and what that meant (the centering of the white male experience).

  9. 3 out of 20 actors (or 85%0 nominated being people of color isn’t as outlandish as you seem to believe. More than 72% of Americans identify as white. And if you go back further in U.S. history, the percentage of whites was much greater. So, looking at diversity over an 85-year span of U.S., you must take into account the changing demographics over that same period.

    I’m curious, however, as to how diverse Asian and Indian cinema are. I would wager that there is a smaller percentage of whites in movies made in Asia and India that there are the converse in America. U.S. cinema is probably the most diverse in the world. And if certain ethnicities don’t play well overseas, you can’t exactly blame Americans for that. Why don’t you look at racism on other continents, where it is far more rampant?

  10. So, 17 of 20 actor nominees (or 85%) in this year’s Oscars are white? Being that more than 72% of Americans identify as white, that isn’t terribly off-kilter.

    It’s also disingenuous to tally the percentages over the 86-year history of the Oscars by today’s standards. Whites used to be an even higher percentage of the American population in the past. Any industry is going to target the vast-majority population of its potential audience.

    If you don’t agree, perhaps then you should take a look at Asian or Indian cinema. How many whites or Africans appear in their movies? I would wager that it’s a far smaller percentage than do people of color in American cinema.

    The truth is, American cinema is the most diverse in the world. Why don’t you take a look at the far more rampant racism in Asian cinema before you criticize America’s more diverse movie industry?

  11. Studies into Asian and Southeast Asian cinema would be an interesting study to see, but having visited these countries in the past, my hunch is this would not be an apples to apples comparison because of the lack of ethnic diversity in Asia.

    When we started this study, we did not know anything about the movie business, so a key part of the study was the interviews with people who actually work in the industry. These conversations were opportunities to compare notes with people who could give us an insider’s view of how it all works.

    Their experiences mirrored our own experience as publishers of diverse books for children. Our own study of the children’s books industry showed the amount of diverse books has not exceeded 10% in over eighteen years, despite the US population consisting of 37% people of color. You can read the study here:

  12. Pingback: Not Gonna Bow
  13. Interesting article, but one part of the infographic appears to be wrong. It says that no people of latino descent have won acting Oscars in the past 10 years. However, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz won Oscars in 2007 & 2008, respectively. The article should be abridged to acknowledge this fact.

  14. Swank’s maternal grandmother was Frances Martha Dominguez, whose parents were Frank Ray Dominguez and Martha Beatrice Rodriguez, both of Mexican descent.

    Whether being 1/4 Mexican makes one “non-White” is another question.

Comments are closed.