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Idris Elba Talks “Diversity” in Thought as Well as Media

Beasts of No Nation‘s Idris Elba recently spoke to his home government at Westminster in front of a body of over 100 British MPs to talk about diversity, primarily in the industry of British media (specifically television), but really about diversity in all industries. You can check out his full 30-min speech in the video above.

What struck me most about it though, which relates to thoughts I keep having regarding #OscarsSoWhite, is that Elba talks about the importance of “people with imagination.” Meaning, it’s not just about getting a more diverse group of people into positions of power – though that’s part of it. It’s about the people who are already in power having imagination enough to see beyond themselves. He talks about diversity, not just in how it relates to race, but how it relates to gender, culture, sexuality, class, and physical ability.

He tells the story of how casting director Nina Gold, a white woman, was doing casting for the British film, Attack the Block, and discovered John Boyega in her casting search, because she was casting a wide net for every character. Then, she was responsible for getting Boyega seen for the role of Finn in The Force Awakens. So while, yes, Gold can be seen as a “diversity hire” as a woman in a male-dominated industry, she also had the aforementioned imagination to look beyond herself racially.

Elba brings up another interesting statistic in this video completely unrelated to film or TV. He talked about the London Olympics, and how the UK placed third as far as number of gold medals on their home turf! Then he said that, of British medalists, 50% of them had attended private school. However, only 7% of all British children go to private school. He then stressed the importance of fishing for talent everywhere, not just in the usual haunts. Because imagine what can be accomplished if you’re drawing talent from over 90% of your children, rather than less than 10%.

The idea that comes up over and over in this speech that I love is that when we talk “diversity,” it’s not just about diversity as it relates to the categories I mentioned above – it’s about “diversity of thought.” In other words, all of us have to make the conscious effort to think differently and entertain a diversity of ideas. Only then can someone like Nina Gold look at someone like John Boyega and think “lead in Star Wars! Of course!”

idris elba

It’s been frustrating for me to watch all the discussion surrounding #OscarsSoWhite, because a lot of the focus seems to be on diversifying the membership body of the Academy. Don’t get me wrong, this is something that needs to happen, but it’s not the only thing that needs to happen. Too often, people in marginalized groups are expected to be the spokespeople for their specific “interest” which only serves to marginalize them more, even as the white/male/cis/straight/able-bodied/financially secure people who hired them feel good about themselves for hiring in a diverse way.

It’s time for those white/male/cis/straight/able-bodied/financially secure people to stop asking marginalized people to take on that work for them, and start taking some of the responsibility on themselves. Fish for talent everywhere. Are the only screeners you’re getting to vote on come Oscar time for films starring cis, straight white people and created by them, too? Maybe…don’t rely entirely on screeners for your voting! Look for films to vote for. Reach out to independent production companies who might not have the budget to be able to get a screener to or host a screening for the entire Academy and ask to see their films. Maybe *gasp* at your own expense! (I mean, it’s not like money buys votes, right? I mean…RIGHT?!)

Don’t just think about the Oscars at Oscar time, and don’t only think about independent film when someone shoves an “indie darling” (which means it already has people supporting it and access to resources a lot of others don’t) in your face. Seek talent out. Everywhere. I realize this will be a lot more work, and no one person can watch everything…but there are 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Surely, y’all can divvy up the hundreds of films that are released each year and make sure everything gets seen.

And then you have to remember that, just because something is culturally important to you, doesn’t mean it’s culturally important to someone else – and vice-versa. You might not enjoy hip-hop, for example, but that doesn’t make a film like Straight Outta Compton worth being taken any less seriously (no, it’s the disregard for Dr. Dre’s history of violence against women that does that!). You might not be a woman, but that doesn’t make stories with nuanced female protagonists “less important” just because you for some reason can’t “see yourself” in her story despite the fact that she’s constantly being asked to see herself in yours. Ditto for LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, and the poor. You shouldn’t have to have lived something yourself to see the value in a story being told.

And it’s not just about diverse storytelling. I mean, it’s not as if people of color, or LGBTQ+ people only work on “those films.” People of color work on all sorts of films. It doesn’t, nor should it have to be, a film “about their community” to get them nominated.

What’s more, perhaps the very rules of nomination need to change. After all, in order to qualify, films need to screen in theaters in Los Angeles by a certain time. However, lots of amazing films go straight online and can’t afford a theatrical release. Granted, a lot of independent film is done by first-timers on a low budget, and therefore might not, to some, represent “the best” in film. But that’s subjective, isn’t it? Budget doesn’t dictate quality, talent does. There are films with budgets under a million dollars that are amazing, and there are multi-million dollar blockbusters that are garbage.

I completely respect Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs’ response to #OscarsSoWhite, and her commitment to diversifying the membership, but that’s not enough. If change is going to happen as quickly as it needs to, we can’t wait for it to happen organically through extrapolated diversity. We need to figure out how to make current members, right now, see the value in the stories and talent they’re ignoring. Members need to be encouraged to do their own outreach, and bring back more diverse choices for nomination – and perhaps they should be penalized if they don’t.

I don’t know the answers – it’s not my organization – but this is bigger than the Oscars, or even the film industry. Decisions made here affect how our nation is shaped, how children grow up seeing themselves, how our country moves forward and is seen in the eyes of the world. Do not take this lightly.

(via The Playlist, image via DFID/Flickr)

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