This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Australia, which closed in 2021.

You Wouldn’t Know It From The Oscars, But 2019 Was A Big Year For Diversity In Film

A new study shows 2019 was “a banner year” for representation for women and people of color at the box office.

At Sunday’s BAFTAs, the British equivalent of the Oscars, Best Actor winner Joaquin Phoenix earned praise for candidly acknowledging his own complicity in the lack of diversity at the top of the film industry.

“I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem. I have not done everything in my power to ensure that the sets I work on are inclusive,” he said during his acceptance speech at the ceremony in London, where all 20 acting nominees were white. “We have to really do the hard work to truly understand systemic racism. I think that is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it. So that’s on us.”

The field of nominees at this Sunday’s Oscars, where Phoenix is the favorite to win Best Actor, is similarly glaringly white. Out of the 20 acting nominees, only one actor of color, “Harriet” star Cynthia Erivo, was included.

The results were especially jarring given the profusion of widely praised performances by actors of color in 2019, including Jennifer Lopez in “Hustlers,” Lupita Nyong’o in “Us” and Awkwafina in “The Farewell” ― and even more so given the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ efforts to diversify its membership in the years since activist April Reign’s “Oscars So White” hashtag called out the institution’s abysmal levels of diversity.

A new study from one of the leading groups researching representation in Hollywood shows how it’s these kinds of institutions and industry gatekeepers that need to catch up to reality. 2019 was “a banner year” for diversity and representation for women and people of color at the box office and a continuation of several years of consistent progress, according to the report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, published Tuesday.

The researchers, led by USC professor and the group’s founder Stacy L. Smith, found that 31 of the 100 highest-grossing films at the box office had a lead or co-lead actor from an underrepresented race or ethnicity.

It’s the fourth consecutive year of gains, up from 27 in 2018, 21 in 2017, and just 14 in both 2015 and 2016.

The leading and co-leading characters in top movies from 2007-2019 who were people of color.
USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative
The leading and co-leading characters in top movies from 2007-2019 who were people of color.

In addition, 16 top-earning films in 2019 had a leading or co-leading actor who was a woman of color, compared to 11 in 2018, and just one when the study began in 2007.

And for women overall, 2019 marked a 13-year high: 43 of the top 100 films featured a female lead or co-lead, the highest number since the study began in 2007.

Smith noted the “obvious disconnect” between the diverse racial and ethnic makeups of the actors featured in the year’s biggest movies and the glaring lack of diversity in the movie industry’s most prestigious award.

“It is clear that Hollywood is taking steps to create more inclusive stories and that those films are connecting with audiences,” she said in a statement. “Yet, there is also a very obvious disconnect between what sells tickets and what garners awards, which points to a systemic bias at cultural institutions like the BAFTAs or the Academy Awards. After another year in which the major studios increased their output of films with female and underrepresented leads or co-leads, it is critical to recognize that talent is not limited by gender or race/ethnicity.”

The study also shows that the diversity we see in film still does not mirror that of the U.S. population. In fact, some racial and ethnic groups are not represented at all.

“While there was increased representation of underrepresented female actors in 2019, no girls or women identifying as Native American/Alaskan Native, Middle Eastern/North African, or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander filled a leading or co-leading role in 2019,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, last year’s version of the study, examining the movies of 2018, found that there were no Middle Eastern or Native women featured in the 100 highest-grossing movies.

And at least in one category, representation actually dropped from 2018: older women, who are often discarded from the industry or relegated to minor or supporting roles after a certain age. In 2019, only three female lead actors in the 100 highest-earning films were 45 or older, a sharp drop from 11 in 2018.

“The continued progress toward greater inclusion is important to celebrate,” the researchers said, but they encourage the industry to pursue “ongoing change,” especially for groups “who are routinely erased in popular film.”

It echoes advice Smith gave last year. The results, Smith said, “offer[ed] hope that industry members have taken action to create content that better reflects the world in which we live, and the box office seems to have rewarded them for it.”

But she also warned that “companies must not grow complacent but continue the progress they have made in 2019 and in the years to come.”

The lack of diversity at the Oscars and the BAFTAs, as well as other markers of success at the top of the movie industry, are a clear sign that there is still a way to go.

Isabel Wilkerson shines a light on the human stories behind the mass movement of black people in the rural South to Northern, Eastern and Western cities after 1915. (Find it here.)
Simon and Schuster
An inside look at the Civil Rights Movement, from one of its most prominent figures. (Find it here.)
Basic Books
This economic history argues that the evolution of American capitalism was deeply intertwined with slave labor, and documents the inhuman cruelties of the domestic slave trade and productivity pushes that allowed the cotton trade to burgeon in the South. (Find it here.)
Metropolitan Books
Family Properties explores an oft-forgotten historical injustice: redlining, a practice by which federal agencies denied mortgage insurance to buyers in black or integrated areas. Redlining rapidly drove segregation and left black families prey to exploitative sellers. Beryl Satter, whose father battled these injustices as a Chicago lawyer, paints both a personal and a sweeping portrait of the phenomenon. (Find it here.)
For anyone who remains unclear on the problem with white feminism, Killing the Black Body makes it eminently clear. Dorothy Roberts lays out the many distinct ways black women’s reproductive rights have been systemically infringed upon, such as forced sterilization — injustices which have often been ignored by a mainstream feminism focused on white, middle-class women’s concerns. (Find it here.)
Harper Perennial
A portrait of a legendary Supreme Court justice as a lawyer, Devil in the Grove catches up with Thurgood Marshall shortly before he brought the seminal Brown v Board of Education suit The book focuses on Marshalls defense of four young black men in Florida targeted by prosecutors and the KKK after a young white woman made rape allegations. (Find it here.)
Nation Books
Ibram X. Kendi examines how racist ideas were spread throughout American history in this sweeping, award-winning history of thought. Bonus: He recently published a reading list in The New York Times, consisting of 24 books he describes as “the most influential books on race and the black experience published in the United States for each decade of the nation’s existence.” (Find it here.)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
A detailed history of an influential Chicago-based newspaper that gave voice to the black community, The Defender traces the publication from its founding in 1905 to its role in speaking out about Jim Crow to its profound impact on politics in the middle of the century. (Find it here.)
The Original Black Elite demonstrates the crushing power of Jim Crow by telling the story of Daniel Murray, a black man who, along with a cohort of outstanding contemporaries, achieved wealth and status in the post-Civil War era -- until their assimilation into the white upper class was stymied by the rise of segregation. (Find it here.)
The New Press
It's always a good time to read The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander's chilling analysis of how black men are disproportionately targeted and more heavily punished by the criminal justice system -- and the oppressive consequences for the black community. (Find it here.)
Simon and Schuster
In a new history of the Emmett Till case, Timothy B. Tyson recounts the horrific story of a young boy who was brutally lynched after a white woman (falsely) alleged that he made lewd comments to her. The Blood of Emmett Till weaves this infamous event, and its aftermath, into a broader story of white supremacist violence and rhetoric that extends into the present day. (Find it here.)
Broadway Books
If you somehow missed this book about a black woman's DNA being exploited for decades of research -- catch up fast. This year it's becoming a movie starring Oprah. (Find it here.)
William Morrow
The women profiled in Hidden Figures -- which is already a major motion picture -- made meaningful, intentional contributions to the science of American space exploration, only to be largely ignored by history. (Find it here.)
First published in 1872, black abolitionist William Still's contemporaneous accounts of the Underground Railroad offer a peephole into the experiences of people escaping slavery. The account is drawn directly from his interviews of the hundreds of people he aided in escape. (Find it here.)
Tribeca Books
First published in 1933, The Mis-education of the Negro examines how the educational system itself worked against black children, teaching them not to seek out ambitious life paths. (Find it here.)
Third World Press
Chancellor Williams's 1971 tome excavated the submerged history of black people in Africa and beyond. The extensively researched book unsettled the problematic common assumption that black civilization created no meaningful cultural or historical achievements. (Find it here.)
University of North Carolina Press
In an extensive oral history, E. Patrick Johnson tells the stories of black gay men who have made their homes in the South. (Find it here.)
Penguin Classics
Malcolm X collaborated with journalist Alex Haley to write his autobiography over the two years leading up to his assassination. The final result has been a landmark influence on many black thinkers and activists. (Find it here.)
Chicago Review Press
Assata Shakur's autobiography takes readers inside black activist movements of the 1970s, giving a first-person account of her involvement and of how targeting by federal agencies eventually weakened groups like the Black Panthers. (Find it here.)
A now-classic history of the Haitian Revolution of 1794-1803, The Black Jacobins tracks and analyzes the massive, sustained slave revolt, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, that led to the formation of the free state of Haiti. (Find it here.)
The Souls of Black Folk is a groundbreaking early work of sociology, published in 1903, and advocates for black education, voting rights and other civil rights while capturing the state of affairs and of debate at the time. (Fid it here.)
An expansive, lavishly illustrated history of the variegated black experience in America, Life Upon These Shores has a wide scope but is rooted in specificity through hundreds of photos and careful scholarship. (Find it here.)
Little Brown and Company
You can call it current events or history in the making, but Wesley Lowery, a Washington Post reporter who has been covering police brutality and Black Lives Matter, brings together the results of his reporting -- both political and personal. (Find it here.)
Suggest a correction
This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Australia. Certain site features have been disabled. If you have questions or concerns, please check our FAQ or contact