Year in Review: Diversity in Pop Culture

Audiences at the 73rd Annual Emmy Awards burst into joy when Michaela Coel, the creator, star and key force behind HBO’s daring comedy-drama “I May Destroy You,” was announced as the winner for writing for a limited or anthology series or film.

The jubilant response at the September ceremony marked a deep appreciation for Coel’s semi-autobiographical story of a young influencer struggling with the trauma of sexual assault, not to mention the series’ distinctive backdrop. , the African and West Indian immigrant communities of modern London.

But Coel’s eloquent acceptance speech also alluded to the challenges that come with telling, as she urged, “the story that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that isn’t. comfortable “.

After all, despite a record number of nominees of color, for acclaimed shows like “I May Destroy You”, Barry Jenkins’ literary adaptation “The Underground Railroad” and topical horror anthology “Lovecraft Country” , conventional fare with mostly white casts – “Ted Lasso”, “Mare of Easttown”, “The Queen’s Gambit” and “The Crown” – dominated the top prizes of the evening.

Just over a year after George Floyd’s murder sparked global protests for racial justice, Coel’s moment in the Emmy spotlight underscored the hesitant progress and continued struggles of Hollywood and the industry. entertainment in their efforts to embrace diversity and the value of inclusion after the 2020 accounts.

“Diversity” may have become an even more popular buzzword in show business circles since the summer of 2020, but the goal of achieving full and meaningful multicultural representation remains elusive.

If 2020 was the year of awakening, 2021 was the year of accountability, as observers and consumers alike look to cultural institutions, businesses and individuals to deliver on their promises.

Significant price reductions illustrated the industry’s still uneven track record.

After a Los Angeles Times investigation published in February found that the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., The organization behind the Golden Globes, had no black members, powerful entertainment publicists announced a boycott of the group and NBC has canceled its telecast of the 2022 ceremony – leading the HFPA to induct its largest class of new members and agree to further reforms in a bid to diversify its ranks.

The first Tony Awards since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have come under fire for leaving the most nominated production – Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play,” which takes place during a retreat at a former plantation in Virginia and presents a provocative treatment of race relations – empty-handed. Latin playwright Matthew López, whose “The Inheritance” won the award for best play, called for more diverse stories on Broadway, as has the winner of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition.

Director Kenny Leon with the cast after the ‘A Soldier’s Play’ opening show at the American Airlines Theater in New York City on January 21.

(Walter McBride /.)

“We can do better,” said Kenny Leon, who won the “A Soldier’s Play” award, repeating the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a black medical worker killed three times. by Louisville, Ky., police early 2020.

Having doubled the number of women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) in the group since the #OscarsSoWhite storm of 2015, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and Actress. to Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) and Yuh-Jung Youn (“Minari”); Chloe Zhao became the first Woman of Color to win the Best Director Award for Best “Nomadland” Feature. Still, the ceremony was marred by disappointment when the late Chadwick Boseman lost to absent Anthony Hopkins in the Best Actor category – the last of the night – for his performance in “My Rainey’s Black Bottom”.

And after being criticized by Drake, Frank Ocean and others for complaining about the mismanagement of hip-hop and R&B at the Grammy Awards, the Recording Academy is presenting a number of initiatives designed to vastly increase racial and gender diversity of a member. It is believed to be primarily older white men.

As evidenced by the nominations, if not always the winners, there is no denying that the specter of pop cultural offerings has shown promising diversity dynamics in 2021 – and more promising indicators are looming on the horizon.

A painful chapter in black history that had been ignored by broadcasters and history programs until HBO’s Emmy-winning “Watchmen” brought it to light in 2019, the centenary of the Tulsa race massacre in 1921 was the subject of intense exposure. Documentaries on CNN, History, National Geographic and other networks have explored the story of the destruction of “Black Wall Street,” in which a thriving and independent black community called Greenwood was ravaged by angry whites who killed hundreds of black residents and set fire to many residences and businesses.

NBC’s full coverage of the Tokyo Olympics, which made athletes well-known names beyond the realm of sport, highlighted the triumph and importance of American gold medalist Hmong Sunisa Lee in the all-around women’s gymnastics competition. But it also captured the intense pressure, often fueled by racism, facing tennis champion Naomi Osaka and gymnast Simone Biles, whose openness to the mental and physical toll of being young women of color at the top. of their respective sports made them both objects of worship. and conservative attacks.

Native Americans, who have been historically cheated and misrepresented in Hollywood, have had a pivotal year for portrayal, spearheaded by two TV comedies: Peacock’s ‘Rutherford Falls’ – co-creator and co-director of which are both Native American – and FX on Hulu’s “Reservation Dogs” – produced by all Native writers and directors, and with an all-Native primary cast.

Asian Americans have also taken center stage in the pop culture landscape, thanks to the hit “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and the superhero epic “Eternals”, directed by Zhao. The excitement surrounding these two projects – two Marvel productions – was good news, especially in the wake of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Advances can also bring unforeseen controversies, as audiences keen to see themselves in pop culture bring new scrutiny to film, television, pop music, media, literature, and more.

This became clear when “In the Heights,” the film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical, released in early summer. One of the first major studio releases to hit theaters – back when it looked like the pandemic was finally on the wane – tipsters wondered if Miranda’s ‘Hamilton’ phenomenon could help the box – office of the film, and early reviews gave the film a thumbs-up, with critics insisting that the dazzling production numbers had to be seen on the big screen rather than being shown at home.

But blockbuster audiences never showed up, and soon after its theatrical release the film faced backlash from those who said the Latin American mass market did not understand. Afro-Latinx artists with dark skin. Instead of the film being a celebration of Latin portrayal, Miranda ended up apologizing for not being more inclusive – setting the table for an even closer look at Steven Spielberg’s modernized update to “West Side Story.” “.

Of course, the most virulent reaction to diversity efforts has come from opponents of multiculturalism, including the noisy and increasingly dangerous white nationalist forces whose violence culminated in the Jan.6 attack on Capitol Hill. Former President Trump and conservative politicians, as well as Fox News commentators, have consistently trashed Critical Race Theory, an academic legal framework that views American history through the lens of systemic racism.

Many of the same figures also attacked “The 1619 Project,” the Pulitzer-winning project by New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones exploring the fundamental influence of slavery on what would become the United States. The controversy shows no signs of waiting, with “The 1619 Project” released in book form in November and currently in the works as a Hulu docuseries.

For supporters of the multicultural project, the challenge in 2021 was therefore both to push back the forces of white supremacy and to advance the conversation on diversity and inclusion beyond ticking a box by adding more faces not. whites to the mixture. To be successful, we learned in 2021, inclusion must be organic and meaningful, and support and endorsement of these efforts must be at the forefront. Otherwise, the efforts may seem empty and superficial.

Matt James was the first black lead role to play in ABC’s “The Bachelor”.

(Craig Sjodin / ABC)

This scenario was vividly illustrated in the final season of ABC’s longtime popular dating show “The Bachelor,” when Matt James was named the franchise’s first Black. Producers have resisted launching a black “Bachelor” for years, including in the midst of a controversial legal battle. But James was quickly swept away in the role following the explosion of support in the summer of 2020 for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Soon, however, James’ landmark season came to an end: In a TV interview, veteran host Chris Harrison firmly defended a candidate accused of callous racial behavior in her past, eliciting a backlash that ultimately led Harrison to quit altogether. franchise. Yet neither ABC nor its parent company, Disney, have officially acknowledged the reasons for Harrison’s departure or the issues with “The Bachelor.”

The most recent season of “The Bachelorette” starring black frontman Michelle Young made history when the four finalists were all black. The historic next season of “The Bachelor” will feature a new host – Jesse Palmer – and a new frontman – Clayton Echard.

Both are white.

Despite numerous commitments and programs from entertainment companies designed to improve multiculturalism, many advocates argue that the playing field is still far from level and that lasting change is not happening quickly enough.

As Darnell Hunt, dean of social science at UCLA, told The Times in an analysis of Hollywood’s progress on its 2020 diversity commitments, the system will not be reformed until there is increased representation of people of color in the executive branches of entertainment companies, “where the real power is.”

With the entertainment industry already gearing up for the holiday season, it may take 2022 for efforts to achieve meaningful diversity and inclusion to be boosted by new energy and focus.

Coel helped pave the way forward. Whether others will follow it remains an open question.

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Year in Review: Diversity in Pop Culture