THE OSCAR DIVERSITY ‘SCANDAL’—ARE WE DOING BETTER IN CANADA?

There’s been a lasting ripple effect due to the lack of diversity represented in the best acting categories at this year’s Academy Awards. The Academy has since taken action to double the number of ‘women and diverse’ voting members by 2020 

In this particular case the term ‘diversity’ is being used to refer specifically to actors of colour, however I personally feel it refers to all of us since we’re all different–women, the LGBT communities, or actors of different ethnic backgrounds and ages—and isn’t that what ‘diversity’ means? But I digress!

The question at hand is: are we doing better in terms of diverse representation onscreen here in Canada? If you look at the nominees in our own Canadian Screen Awards categories, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ but if you dig a little deeper it’s not as black & white as it appears, pardon the pun!

One of the benefits of a government-funded system is that when you go to Telefilm for money, you have to satisfy Canadian Content criteria, and indeed, diversity is part of their mandate:

“Telefilm will encourage a diversity of voices in feature film by … projects presenting different viewpoints such as those of women and emerging talent, as well as projects showcasing the cultural diversity of the country through the presence of Aboriginal communities, linguistic minorities, etc.”

I spoke with Telefilm’s, Dan Lyon, a huge supporter of Canadian talent both onscreen and behind the camera, who said that, “In my role as a Feature Film Executive for Telefilm Canada, one of my greatest pleasures is to provide opportunities for filmmakers from diverse backgrounds, and fostering stories about people reflecting the scope of our community. Examples of recent projects which reflect the wide diversity of Canada include Stella Meghie’s JEAN OF THE JONESES (which will play SXSW in March), Igor Drljaca’s THE WAITING ROOM starring the CSA-nominated Jasmin Geljo, Deepa Mehta’s BEEBA BOYS, DR CABBIE starring Vinay Virmani and Kunal Nayyar, ACROSS THE LINE starring Stephan James (directed by Director X, inspired by the true story of a race riot in a Halifax high school), and David Bezmozgis’ NATASHA (set in the Russian-Jewish immigrant community in North York).  A unique example of diversity on-screen is THE RAINBOW KID, in which CSA-nominated actor Dylan Harman portrays the leading role of a young man (like himself) with Down’s Syndrome.”

It’s certainly an impressive line-up of films and one which reaffirms Telefilm’s commitment to representing Canada accurately onscreen. Yet when I ask Albert Shin, writer/director of CSA Best Picture nominee for 2015’s IN HER PLACE, how he feels as a ‘diverse’ filmmaker he pauses and says, “It’s kinda complicated.” His film didn’t receive any Telefilm funding as it didn’t satisfy the Canadian Content criteria. It was filmed in Korea and had no Canadian actors, however it was ‘born, bred and developed here’. It was Canadian enough to be nominated for a Canadian Screen Award so this raises the question as to what qualifies as ‘Canadian’.

We’ve been rightfully proud, for example, of the Best Picture Oscar nominations for Canadian coproductions, ROOM and BROOKLYN, but does anyone outside the Canadian industry consider these films ‘Canadian’?

BEEBA BOYS star, Gabe Grey, also felt that the definition of what’s considered ‘Canadian’ is changing and that “funders need to acknowledge that.” Grey had a huge year in 2014 when he was part of the Canadian Film Centre’s Actor’s Lab and shot the Deepa Mehta-directed BEEBA BOYS. Naturally his career took a solid upward climb following this bountiful year right? Wrong. I was shocked to hear that auditions have actually decreased for him since BEEBA BOYS.  While this is partly due to him going out for larger roles, if those roles aren’t open to casting him, it’s a bit of a sticky situation.

Grey’s comments on the changing status of what’s considered Canadian stemmed from the fact that, as a South Asian actor, the types of roles he’s considered for continue to be largely stereotypical ones—that of a terrorist or doctor for example—whereas he’s never considered for a romantic lead. It feels like there’s a sensibility with those making the casting decisions of Caucasians being ‘like a string of pearls that is neutral and goes with everything” he says, while ethnic actors are marginalized as being more ‘specific’.  

As a former Chair of the Diversity Committees for both, ACTRA Toronto and ACTRA National myself, I know that the actor’s union does it’s best to represent it’s diverse actors to the casting communities.

ACTRA Toronto President, Dave Sparrow says, “At ACTRA, we have embraced our motto &Diversity is our Strength.& by working with our industry partners to lobby government for the opportunity to better reflect the amazing mosaic of Canadian society on all our screens. And while many more projects now tell the stories of strong women and people of colour, there is always more we can do. Inclusion is an action word. As creators, our industry must work to include as they tell the stories of our diverse nation. As we saw in last year's Book of Negroes, great, exciting stories are celebrated and shared across wide audiences. At our ACTRA Awards in Toronto on February 20th we celebrate 15 nominees who have done outstanding work over the last year, and they represent diversity of gender, age and ethnicity… but most of all, they are terrific actors and engaging story tellers.”

But ACTRA is not a casting director, and even if casting directors bring diversity into the audition room, they aren’t the ones making the final decisions. That’s what it essentially boils down to—until the decision makers are more diverse themselves, the casting of films won’t change much.

It is amusing to me that ‘authenticity’ is often invoked as a reason for not including diverse actors. Somehow it’s ok to have Kristin Kreuk play an Indian woman in PARTITION, but we simply cannot have an Indian/Black/Asian performer in a historic film outside of their native lands! Ahh the frustrating contradictions!

As he works on his next project, Albert Shin is aware that fellow filmmakers trying to make culturally diverse films are having a hard time getting their films off the ground yet he knows firsthand that “if you can do it on your own and cut through the noise you can still get recognized”. IN HER PLACE was definitely an underdog and it’s nomination for Best Picture made him a filmmaker to watch. He’s now working with a larger production company for one of his next projects, something that probably wouldn’t have happened before IN HER PLACE.

As for handsome Gabe Grey, he’s become a self-starter, realizing that creating your own projects is really the lesson to be learned. One of the projects he’s involved in has had no Canadian interest yet, however it has attracted an international distributor. This is another sad fact of the Canadian industry, that many of it’s best and brightest stars often feel they need to leave Canada to be recognized and to have opportunities that aren’t available to them at home.

I’ll leave you with this. I recently watched an American film, LAST KNIGHTS. In it, Clive Owen plays a knight to Morgan Freeman’s Lord Bartok. Several secondary characters, including many of Owen’s band of knights include black, middle Eastern and Asian actors. I’ll tell you this much—having diverse actors in a drama set in historical England  did not diminish my enjoyment of this film even a wee bit. Perhaps it’s time we give audiences a little more credit, a little more respect and a little more representation of themselves at the theatres.

What do you think? Am I kicking up a fuss about nothing? Are things progressing at an acceptable pace or do they need to progress at all? I can’t wait to hear your comments!

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