Tapping into the Zeitgeist: #OscarsSoWhite Makes its Mark on Hollywood and Beyond

In our post, “After OscarsSoWhite, Now What?” we discussed just how far the movie industry had to go to reflect global diversity. Fast forward one year, it’s hard to disagree the 2017 Oscars were dazzling for people of color. Six black actors and Indian-Englishman, Dev Patel, vied for major acting awards, winning two. Moonlight, an independent film based on a semi-autobiographical play about the coming of age of a young, gay black man in Florida–which had no featured Caucasian characters–won Best Picture, upsetting what people thought was a sure thing for La La Land. African American actor, Mahershala Ali, won Best Supporting Actor for Moonlight, making him the first Muslim to win an acting Oscar. The response to the film’s win was a wider release; it was announced following the awards Moonlight was set to open on 1500 screens nationwide. The much admired and beautiful Viola Davis, a dark-complected actress who has spoken publicly about her body and hair insecurity, gave an impassioned acceptance speech upon her Best Supporting Actress win for Fences, again expressing her wonder at coming from abject poverty to a place in the spotlight. Another work, Erza Edelman and Caroline Waterlow’s Best Documentary Feature win, OJ: Made in America, while evoking sad and disquieting subject matter, tapped zeitgeist issues of race and justice and fame.

In response, voices we’d heard loudly in 2016 were hopeful, yet measured. April Reign, whose ubiquitous 2016 hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite, became an energizing rallying cry, pointed out that we have to be vigilant about inclusion of not only black faces and voices, but all the colors and circumstances that make up the real world. Her twitter post noted: “One year of films reflecting the Black experience doesn’t make up for 80 yrs of underrepresentation of ALL groups.” And realistically, the films we enjoyed this year were in production or pre-production for years before their release dates. So what gives?

#OscarsSoWhite undoubtedly was influential. In response to the outcry, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, planted seeds of change by successfully leading a campaign to diversify the voting membership. The hashtag also threw light on a small and specific film like Moonlight, and helped make Hidden Figures a box office smash, surpassing La La Land domestically by $17 million as of today. As several people have pointed out, however, the power structure in Hollywood hasn’t changed yet and remains predominantly white and male, but there’s no denying the door has been cracked open.

The phenomenal success of multi-cultural series television and online programming, and the growing population of millennials and those who will come after are propelling the rhythm of contemporary culture. Not only are millennials a more accepting generation, they are also more pragmatic about the long-term necessity of diversity. Shows like black-ish, Atlanta, Fresh Off the Boat, Scandal, Empire and Insecure explore sometimes real (controversial and painful) and sometimes outlandish themes. Why are these shows so popular, drawing large and diverse audiences? Because content is key. Millennials are interested in unique content providing an experience, over anything. (That’s kind of what all viewers want.) And millennials would like their ads to look the same, thank you.

The ad world has determined it’s content celebrating diversity as a central theme that has made the most successful campaigns in the last five years. Diversity casting is important, but it’s what advertising depicts and says that works — millennials respond to an experience and a theme reflecting the world they inhabit. They are also paying attention to what your company is doing with their profits, and what your company culture is like. And since they are the most diverse audience in history with purchasing power of over $1 Trillion annually, they can’t be painted with a broad brush. Mainly, they want to be authentically engaged or entertained by companies with some social consciousness.

I’ve always known TV had its finger on the pulse, and as the audience goes, so go the advertisers. We are moving forward.

Questions to consider:

  1. How well are advertisers doing when it comes to including diverse talent in media campaigns?
  2. How well are advertisers doing when it comes to tackling issues outside of racial diversity, such as gender, age and ableism?
  3. How has Millennials’ acceptance of diversity, in its broadest expression (i.e., race, socio-economics, gender expression, etc.), as the norm, influenced marketing to this coveted community?

The Marketing of An Icon

David Redfern/Redferns/ GettyImages JB Lacroix/ WireImage
David Redfern/Redferns/ GettyImages JB Lacroix/ WireImage

When I was 13 years old, I experienced what many adolescents go through— I had very little self-esteem.  My lack of self-esteem stemmed from feeling like I didn’t fit in.  My reflection didn’t fit the standards of beauty that adorned the pages of the magazines I read. I thought I was fat and was often on a diet to try to lose 10 pounds. I thought my nose was too broad and my thighs were too large. I even dreamed about the day when I would be able to afford surgery to fix my imperfections.

Of course, none of those options was available to me.  But when I heard Nina Simone’s version of  To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,  I saw and heard a woman who looked like me and I began to find my inner and outer beauty.  When I heard this song, I felt so validated.  I began to look at and accept my African features in a whole new way. This was a magnificent turning point in my life.

For me, and I’m sure many other women, Nina Simone represented a liberation from desiring an unattainable beauty.  Her music, presence, and stand for her artistry had a tremendous influence on me and I was proud of what she represented culturally in the United States and in my corner of the world in the Caribbean.

As a huge Nina Simone fan, I was captivated by the Netflix-produced documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?  that debuted last summer. The film’s authentic look at Nina’s life and music is engaging. A few weeks later, I was delighted to learn that a theatrical release, Nina, was coming to the silver screen, and I was planning too see it for the entertainment value.  I heard Zoe Saldana was slated to play the leading role.  While I questioned the producers’ choice of Ms. Saldana to fill the enormous emotional and cultural shoes of the iconic Nina Simone, that did not deter my plans to support the film.

Then came the release of the trailer for Nina.  I was taken aback to see that the film’s producers had darkened Ms. Saldana’s skin and had applied a prosthetic device to broaden her nose to make her look more like Nina Simone. The decision to change Zoe Saldana’s look to better reflect Nina is a clear example of what happens when production decisions go wrong.

Knowing your brand is key when developing a production or marketing strategy.  Whether it’s designing a package, developing advertising, choosing promotional vehicles or any other marketing efforts, several factors must be taken in to consideration.  It’s important to understand the brand, feature its unique attributes, and understand what it means to the audience. From the signs of it, the branding of Ninaseems to have missed these key elements.

What to Watch For

I’m looking forward to seeing Miles Ahead this month with Don Cheadle starring as the legendary Miles Davis. While this film is not a true biopic, I am eager to see how Mr. Cheadle created a film from this later portion of Miles Davis’ career.

Questions to Consider

  1. Which companies do you consider to be standouts when it comes to getting it right with their branding efforts?
  2. What marketing decisions do you feel have missed the mark and what was the fall out that ensued?
  3. What businesses have successfully gotten ahead of negative social media reactions to their marketing decisions?

After #OscarsSoWhite, What Comes Next?

Photo for OscarsSoWhite - 2016-04-09 - Edited

Now that the 2016 award season is complete, what comes next? While the #OscarsSoWhite discussion brought up a wide range of challenges in Hollywood, how do we initiate real change that showcases, recognizes, and celebrates diverse stories?

Our first task is to re-evaluate how we measure onscreen success. The last four years has ushered in a host of powerful films featuring African American stories and lead actors including The Help, Fruitvale Station, and 12 Years a Slave. We can’t take for granted that these films have showcased amazing character portrayals that have shown the African American experience in nuanced, poignant, and thoughtful performances.

Second, we have to celebrate other movies such as Selma showcasing the first onscreen portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. in nearly 26 years; Lee Daniels’ The Butler holding the No. 1 spot at the box office for three straight weeks during Summer 2013 (Hollywood Reporter); and Creed being helmed by 29-year-old director Ryan Coogler in just his second directorial offering.

Third, we have to create an infrastructure where we look beyond Hollywood and consider rising talent from web series on YouTube to short clips on Instagram. While these media are far from the high-caliber production of a Hollywood set, these innovators are providing multi-dimensional stories and perspectives that shouldn’t be ignored.

While the 2016 award season felt like an all-too-familiar snubbing of multicultural talent, the media coverage surrounding #OscarsSoWhite presents an opportunity for Hollywood to reflect the diversity that is America.

What to Watch For

Nate Parker’s highly anticipated debut film Birth of a Nation, which was enthusiastically received at the Sundance Film Festival in January and sold for a record-breaking $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight (Variety), will be an interesting film to watch and even more intriguing to see how it will be received next award season. Birth of a Nation will showcase the first onscreen portrayal of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave uprising in Southampton, Va.

Questions to Consider

  1. How well are advertisers doing when it comes to including diverse talent in media campaigns?
  2. How has Millennials’ acceptance of diversity, in its broadest expression (i.e., race, socio-economics, gender expression, etc.), as the norm, influenced marketing to this coveted community?
  3. What can the film industry learn from diversity successes on television (such as Blackish or Fresh Off the Boat), on Broadway (like Hamilton) and on the web (e.g., Isha Rae or Keraun and Simone)?

Cosmetics: It’s A Mindset Thing

To say that the cosmetics industry has come a long way as far as reflecting diversity is an understatement.

Over the years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of women of color about their cosmetics “wishes.”  The common desire: “We want to be able to buy quality brands of makeup and be assured that we can get foundation shades that work for us whatever our skin tone.”  Companies paid attention, saw the business opportunity and eventually granted their wish.

Brands have expanded their color palates and there is rarely an ad today that doesn’t feature a range of ethnicities including women on the darker end of the color spectrum.

Imagine my surprise when I read about Sudanese model Nykhor Paul’s experience.  Ms. Paul revealed that she has to bring her own cosmetics to photo shoots because they do not carry shades for darker skin tones.  While this was commonplace back in the day, it seems that back in the day includes nowadays!  Ms. Paul took to social media to voice her displeasure, Why do I have to bring my own makeup to a professional show when all the other white girls don’t have to do anything but show up wtf!  Don’t try to make me feel bad because I am blue black. ”

Black women have been gracing fashion runways for decades.  More recently, Lupita Nyongo has become the face of Lancôme, a role that has traditionally belonged to white models or celebrities.  With this reality, there needs to be a mindset of inclusion within the community of makeup artists.  It’s time for this community to mirror cosmetics manufacturers and cater to the entire colorful universe of potential clients.