Where's The Diversity Among Oscar Hopefuls?

The holidays are high season for Hollywood. It's when movie studios release some of their best offerings in the hope of scoring big profits and maybe an Oscar nomination or two. The new crop of movies feature diverse plot lines, but some critics say there's almost no ethnic diversity. Host Allison Keyes talks diversity in film with The San Francisco Chronicle's "Asian Pop" columnist Jeff Yang and "3 Black Chicks.com" Editor-in-Chief and writer Kamal Larsuel.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, cheering for science. We'll talk about professional cheerleaders doing what they do best - to encourage girls to get involved in science.

But first, the holiday season is underway and movie studios have begun to flood the multiplexes with flicks they hope will score huge profits, Oscar nominations or both.

One might yearn for plotlines that are new and diverse, but can we say the same about the characters we see on the screen and the folk in the director's chair? Do they reflect the unique backgrounds and cultures of Latino, African and Asian Americans and other communities of color in the nation?

We were curious about the role of diversity in film, particularly Oscar quality films, so we've called Jeff Yang. He writes the Asian pop column for the San Francisco Chronicle and he joins us from our studio in Culver City. Also joining the conversation is Kamal Larsuel. She's editor-in-chief and writer of 3blackchicks.com, a website of film reviews. She joins us from Auburn in Washington state. Welcome to the program.

Ms. KAMAL LARSUEL (Editor-in-chief and Writer, 3blackchicks.com): Hi, thank you for having me.

Mr. JEFF YANG (Writer, San Francisco Chronicle): Thank you.

KEYES: The Hollywood Reporter just wrote that for the first time in 10 years they don't think that there will be any black nominees in any of the acting categories for the next ceremony, and they're not seeing any people of color among the early list of awards hopefuls. Jeff, if that really happens, what message does that send both to the public and to the Academy?

Mr. YANG: You know, it looks like we've kind of fallen back into the default, if you will, of having the middle market films and the art films, the films that are generally seen as having the most opportunity to contend for this sort of critical and industry acclaim, if you will, really being absent of representation of people of color.

KEYES: And when you say people of color, we're talking Asians, we're talking Latinos, not just black folk.

Mr. YANG: Yeah. And I would actually say that for Asian Americans in general, it's almost kind of a wasteland as far as the Academy Awards are concerned.

KEYES: Kamal, if the Academy Awards do turn out to be basically all white this year, do you think it sends a particular message to the film industry that that's acceptable, or do you think the message more goes to the public?

Ms. LARSUEL: I think it goes to the industry that it's more acceptable. I mean this happens over and over again, where they throw a bone one year and then just take all our toys away the next. I mean, "The Color Purple," prime example. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, won zero.

You know, as a black woman, the first thing I think about is black actors. But when I broaden my scope, what about all actors of color? We could even say, you know, Arab-Americans and Iranian Americans, there's nothing out there to represent and celebrate the citizens of this country who are of color.

One of the most disappointing things for this year was "The Last Airbender."

KEYES: Let me jump in right quick, for people that don't know, in "The Last Airbender," there were white people that were playing Asian characters, which caused, shall we say, a bit of controversy.

Mr. YANG: The one thing that we can be grateful for was that "The Last Airbender" will be nowhere near the Academy Awards ceremony next year.

Ms. LARSUEL: That's true, you know.

KEYES: Hang on a second. We're going to play a clip from that and then we're going to come back to it in just a second. Here we go.

(Soundbite of film, "The Last Airbender")

Ms. NICOLA PELTZ (Actress): (as Katara) You are the only one who can control all the elements and bring peace to our world.

Mr. NOAH RINGER (Actor): (as Aang) I will stop them.

Unidentified Man: (as Character) You may already be too late.

(Soundbite of music)

KEYES: Dun, dun, dun. Okay, Jeff, let me ask you. And I have to note, this isn't the first this director has caught some flack for this, is it?

Mr. YANG: The director himself, M. Night Shyamalan, who is himself somebody who's been nominated for Academy Awards in the past. "The Sixth Sense," his kind of opus magnus, put him in contention for a slew of awards: Best Picture, Best Director.

Ms. LARSUEL: I see dead people.

Mr. YANG: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YANG: I see dead people, but I don't see Asian people. You know, the thing is he has always seen himself as this sort of (unintelligible) maverick in Hollywood where, you know, it's his vision that matters most. And I think the real fault has to lie with the studios because the casting decisions end up being primarily around the idea of avoiding risk as much as possible.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about diversity or the lack of it in the movies, especially those with a chance for Oscar nominations. We're speaking with the San Francisco Chronicle's Asian pop columnist Jeff Yang, and also, with editor-in-chief and writer of 3blackchicks.com, Kamal Larsuel.

So, if there are talented actors and filmmakers of color, where are they if they're not in the Oscar movies?

Mr. YANG: You know, this is one of those things where it almost ends up being, like, ah, you don't want to blame your own community for this sort of thing, and you can't in some ways. I mean there are so many talented performers out there who are Asian and African-American, Latino and, you know, and there are filmmakers who are incredibly talented as well, you know.

And the question is, okay, well, so why aren't they, you know, kind of standing up and being counted? Well, you know, the fact is it's like with any other profession, you need to have the (unintelligible) team in place, you need to have people in positions of decision making power who are saying, you know, I'm going to look at a wider angle, a wider lens on what might be a potentially successful project to put my weight behind.

And at every level, you know, from the studio executives to, you know, every step along the way, you just don't have enough people of color inside who can help reach a hand outside to bring in those next generation talents, if you will.

KEYES: What do you think is going to be the next move or do you think there'll be a next move from major film companies on diversity? If all of this ends up to be an all-white Oscars year, do you think there will be another cycle? Because this is beginning to sound like a - there's a one big black movie or one movie that has actual Asians or Latinos in it, and there will be - and then the next two years there's nothing.

Mr. YANG: I think that's what we're looking at, certainly. But there are bigger trends that are happening and I think the biggest of these trends is that we are looking at more and more films being made for global audiences and for global consumption.

I'm actually here in Los Angeles right now on the press tour for a film that's coming out called "The Warrior's Way," which is an international production. It stars a superstar in Korea, a guy named Jang Dong-gun. Alongside him is Kate Bosworth, Danny Huston and Academy-Award nominated actor Geoffrey Rush.

So, you have this desire here, I think, for more people to say, we're not going to play the straight Hollywood game now. You know, we're going to put our money, and this is not a small budget film. It's, you know, a nicely budgeted film and we're going to see whether or not we can't get butts in seats on both sides of the Pacific.

KEYES: Kamal, from your point of view, do you see color on the horizon?

Ms. LARSUEL: It'll be a whitewash Oscar and we will stand up and protest and yell and scream and bring the spotlight back on people of color. And so the Oscars of 2012 will probably have a nice array of people of color and then we'll go back into the commonplace and get comfortable again until we have to scream. And I just wish we would get to a day where we don't have to scream.

KEYES: Kamal Larsuel is the editor-in-chief and writer of 3blackchicks.com. She joined us from Auburn, a town in Washington state. Jeff Yang writes the Asian pop column for the San Francisco Chronicle. He joined us from our studio in Culver City. Thank you both for an interesting conversation.

Ms. LARSUEL: Thank you.

Mr. YANG: Thank you, Allison.

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