Manuel Nunez air dries a finished, gold-plated Oscar statuette at the R.S. Owens factory in Chicago, Illinois. (Photographer: Tim Boyle/Bloomberg News)

Yes, Those Award Show Protest Speeches Do Work

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- After actor Natalie Portman braved the stage at the 2018 Golden Globes to introduce the nominated directors as “all male,” it wasn’t hard to find mocking stories in the media. Critics also went after the many women that night who wore black in solidarity with Time’s Up, the movement against sexual harassment that had begun a few days earlier.

Portman’s deft bit of activism, however, was just an appetizer for the Academy Awards two months later, when best actress winner Frances McDormand used her speech to promote “inclusion riders,” a provision in an actor’s or filmmaker’s contract that allows for a certain level of diversity in casting and production staff.

Most people in the theater that night, or watching on television, had never heard of an inclusion rider. But soon enough, Matt Damon, Michael B. Jordan, and other powerful men announced they’d insist on their implementation. William Morris Endeavor Entertainment LLC and Warner Media LLC also committed to inclusion as a core value. “Years down the line, people will look back at this moment as being the start of real change,” Jordan says. “It’s going to take some time, but with Warner Brothers leading the charge, it’s hard not to see other studios following suit.”

Turns out that awards shows, for all their ­superficial interest in who’s wearing what, can be powerful levers for change. For one, they offer a chance to break through the noise when the world is paying attention—how often do moviegoers think about a film’s director before Oscar season? The nominations and awards themselves also confer significant influence. Consider an actor such as Brie Larson, who won an Academy Award for Room as a relative newcomer in 2016. She’s now using her press junket for the superhero flick Captain Marvel to push for gender parity. An award, especially an Academy Award, gives an actor, director, or producer more power over which projects they work on, what they get paid, and whom they hire.

Activism has been a touch point around awards events—think of #AskHerMore, which addresses the double standard of red carpet questions for men and women, or #OscarsSoWhite, which highlights the lack of minority nominees in film. But the current level of deliberate focus and action has continued to shift the tectonic plates of post-­Harvey Weinstein Hollywood.

At the Cannes Film Festival in May, 82 women from across the industry (including yours truly) walked the world’s most prestigious red carpet to shine a spotlight on the event’s inviting only 82 female directors, compared with 1,727 male ones, to present films there in its 71-year history. Just one woman, Jane Campion, has won the festival’s highest honor, the Palme d’Or—for The Piano in 1993—and even then she shared it with a man.

At this year’s Golden Globes, If Beale Street Could Talk star Regina King used her winning moment as best supporting actress to announce that women would account for at least half of the staff on future projects she produces. It caused a stir, which was the intention: She made her declaration at a moment when she had the most leverage.

Representation is at the heart of this push for change. When most people think of a director, it’s the image of a white guy in a baseball cap—no surprise, that’s what Steven Spielberg looks like. We were presented with stories primarily from white men, so those narratives became the stories of our culture.

Little by little, though, these award-show speeches are making a difference. Over the last three years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has increased the number of women in its directing branch, from 10 percent to about 20 percent, hoping to get more of them nominated.

And as we reach peak award season, audiences have shown they’re on board with inclusion: Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, both directed by men of color, were huge successes this year. Along with more high-profile female-­directed films, it’s enough to hope that the white-male stranglehold on movies may be over once and for all.

Silverstein is the founder of Women and Hollywood and co-founder of the Athena Film Festival at Barnard College in New York.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gaddy at jgaddy@bloomberg.net

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