Comedy & Tragedy: Pop Culture’s Two-Faced Approach to Diversity and Inclusion

by Andrés T. Tapia —comedytragedy

The 2011 Oscars revealed two different tales of diversity’s progress and retro-ness in the entertainment industry.

Eight women — a record — received non-actress awards, which was a nice sequel to Kathryn Bigelow’s breaking of the Oscar glass ceiling last year when her muscular “The Hurt Locker beat out her ex-husband James Cameron’s fantasy “Avatar” for Best Picture and Best Director. This is progress.

But when it came to African Americans, Asians, and Latinos…. Whoop! Nowhere to be found on the nominee list.

This year’s drought is par for the course.

Thirty-eight years would pass after Sidney Poitier (“Lilies of the Field,” 1963) became the first black male to win Best Actor before another African American (Denzel Washington in “Training Day,” 2001) to follow in his footsteps. Since then it’s only been Jamie Foxx (“Ray,” 2004) and Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland,” 2006). As far as African-American women go, Halle Berry (“Monster Ball,” 2001) is the only one to win a Best Actress Oscar.

For a Latino Best Actor, we have to go back to 1950 for Jose Ferrer (“Cyrano de Bergerac,” 1950). That’s it. There are close ones: Anthony Quinn (“Viva Zapata!” 1952, “Lust for Life,” 1956) and Benicio del Toro (Traffic, 2000) as Best Supporting Actors. A Latina or an Asian female has never won Best Actress. The closest Latina? Rita Moreno’s Oscar for her supporting role in “West Side Story” in 1961! Asian winners? Only two males: Yul Brynner (“The King and I,” 1956) and Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi,” 1982).

Looking back through this dismal picture, it’s clear that actors of color achievements peaked in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Ay!

When it comes to pop culture, the entertainment industry is awash in contradictions around diversity. As the most powerful medium to help bring about mainstream societal culture change, it has a long and distinguished record of contributing to inflection points that paved the way to greater inclusion. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in the 1960s truly broke new ground as it suavely told the story of a young white woman bringing her black male friend, played by the elegant Sidney Poitier, to dinner at her racist white parents’ house. It not only broke the interracial relationship taboo, but even today remains a powerful metaphor for bringing an excluded party into the inner sanctum of those doing the excluding.

Who can forget what “Crash” did in moving the race conversation beyond black and white to all the other dimensions of diversity? Or Sean Penn’s dignifying and human portrayal of gay activist Harvey Milk (“Milk,” 2008)? Or “White Man’s Burden” (1995) where John Travolta lives in a United States where whites are the oppressed minority and Blacks the ones in charge?

Even schlocky movies like “G.I. Jane” (1997) help transform long standing beliefs, in this case Demi Moore machine gunning her way toward normalizing that women can be warriors too. TV land has also played a significant role in changing culture mores. “Dora the Explorer” has a Latina girl teaching Spanish to white, blue-eyed kids throughout America, while a couple of decades earlier lovable “Ellen” made people laugh their way right out of their prejudices against lesbians and gays.

But Hollywood also perpetuates exclusion. There is so little diversity to be found among directors, writers, and producers, it’s not shocking that the most popular of media does not reflect the world as it exists. Minorities continue to struggle with very few roles available that call for their background and, when they do, it’s usually to play a thug, a homeless person, someone out of the mainstream.

We are not even having a debate about whether a deserving actor of color was passed over. People of color are not even being cast in quality roles in either mainstream story lines or in a film about people of color that would set them up for Oscar contention. Jeff Friday founder of the American Black Film Festival, told CNN for a piece entitled, “Where’s the Diversity at the Oscars?” “We have to challenge the studio system. Why are studios not making films that represent the people of this country?”

And more disturbingly, right now with even the most cutting edge, positive, and high quality efforts to create there are troubling exclusionary blind spots. Last year, I wrote about the patronizing, and therefore exclusionary, white messiah messages of 2010 Oscar nominees “Avatar,” “The Blind Side,” “Precious,” and “District 9.” This time, I look at other inadvertent exclusionary ways that show up in the popular TV shows known for their positive diversity impact—“Glee,” “Modern Family,” and “The Cleveland Show”—which I share in my next installment.


Andrés Tapia is a Senior Partner at Korn Ferry International, a premier global provider of talent management solutions. Previously he served as President of Diversity Best Practices, the preeminent diversity and inclusion thinktank and consultancy. Prior to Diversity Best Practices, he served as Hewitt’s Chief Diversity Officer and Emerging Workforce Solutions Leader. As a published writer and prominent speaker, Andrés offers thought-provoking views about diversity’s impact around the world. He is the author of The Inclusion Paradox – 3rd edition: The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity. Find his bio here.


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