Why Are #OscarsSoWhite—and What To Do About It: A Reading List

The lack of representation in this year's Oscar's nominations were galling to many. From celebrations of marginalized artists to nuanced critiques of racism and sexism, these books will start a much-needed conversation about inclusivity and equity in Hollywood.

When the Oscar nominations were announced last month, many took to Twitter with cries of #OscarsSoWhite—a movement started four years ago by April Reign to protest the Academy’s refusal to recognize a more diverse group of artists. Though 2019 saw many powerful performances by people of color (Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers; Lupita Nyong'o in Us), only one actor of color was honored: Cynthia Erivo, for Harriet. These omissions come just a year after the best picture win went to The Green Book, a film many decried as an inaccurate depiction of African American pianist Don Shirley. Moreover, no female directors were nominated this year, despite strong showings by Lulu Wang (The Farewell) and Greta Gerwig (Little Women).

The lack of representation here is symptomatic of a larger problem in Hollywood, but, as demonstrated by this report from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California, things are getting better—albeit slowly. But there’s still work to be done, and the following titles are intended to start a dialog—from celebrations of marginalized actors and filmmakers to nuanced critiques of misogyny and racism in Hollywood.

Book cover of Hollywood BlackBogle, Donald. Hollywood Black: The Stars, the Films, the Filmmakers. Running Pr. 2019. ISBN 9780762491414.
Bogle’s Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks, published in 1973 and updated continuously, is the definitive guide to black film history. Featuring sumptuous illustrations, lively text, and a foreword by the late director John Singleton, his latest is much more accessible though no less insightful, exploring groundbreaking African American actors, movies, and directors—from Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar-winning role in Gone with the Wind to Dorothy Dandridge’s sultry performance in Carmen Jones to Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first black superhero in Black Panther .

The Encyclopedia of Racism in American Film. Rowman & Littlefield. (National Cinema). 2018. ed. by Salvador Jimenez Murguía. ISBN 9781442269057.
Even when Hollywood does tell the stories of people of color, a preponderance of white filmmakers and screenwriters means that many of these movies are laced with harmful stereotypes and inaccurate tropes. Murguía (sociology, Akita Intl. Univ., Japan) and several contributors take a hard-hitting look at a wide range of American cinema with racist undercurrents or explicit overtones, from The Birth of a Nation to Crash, as well as more self-aware films that acknowledge and comment on our nation’s racist roots (Get Out; Do the Right Thing).

Erigha, Maryann. The Hollywood Jim Crow: The Racial Politics of the Movie Industry. New York Univ. 2019. ISBN 9781479886647.
Those angered by the marginalization of black filmmakers should pick up Erigha’s (sociology & African American studies, Univ. of Georgia) eye-opening, scholarly work for an explanation of why, and how, this sidelining occurs. Synthesizing copious data, she holds responsible a racial hierarchy in which African American filmmakers and movies centering black stories are systematically devalued.

Garrett, Greg. A Long, Long Way: Hollywood’s Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation. Oxford Univ. Jun. 2020. ISBN 9780190906252.
Garrett (English, Baylor Univ.) turns a scholarly eye onto the history of racism and U.S. film, noting that “We’ve come a long, long way. We still have a long, long way to go.” His insights are sharp and necessary, from an analysis of how The Birth of a Nation used visual imagery to villainize black men to a chapter on how Get Out takes aim at the concept of the postracial society.

Gates, Racquel J. Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture. Duke Univ. 2018. ISBN 9781478000419.
Gates (media culture, City Univ. of New York) takes on the idea that depictions of black popular culture can be divided into positive, empowering images and negative ones, reflecting stereotypes (such as reality shows like The Real Housewives of Atlanta or Love & Hip Hop). But by looking at these “negative texts,” from Coming to America to Monster’s Ball, many of which conceal complex musings on race, gender and sexuality, the author shows that black cultural production is far more complicated than many would assume.

Book cover for Hollywood HeroinesHollywood Heroines: The Most Influential Women in Film History. 2018. ed. by Laura L.S. Bauer. ISBN 9781440836480.
You wouldn’t know it from scanning this year’s Oscar nominations, but women are a crucial part of the film industry. In this reference work, Bauer (coeditor, All Things Dickinson: An Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World) profiles female performers, cinematographers, costume designers, directors, producers, screenwriters, special effects artists, and more. With an appendix of additional names and frequent interviews, this is a much-needed reminder that though women often go unrecognized by the Academy, their contributions still shine.

Holt, Nathalia. The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History. Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316439152.
Despite what you might assume from reading the credits of early Disney animated features, female writers and animators played a pivotal role in shaping these movies, from Mary Blair, who also designed the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland, to Sylvia Holland, who supervised key animation sequences for Fantasia. As in Rise of the Rocket Girls, Holt blends gripping prose with careful research as she spotlights women who have gone unacknowledged for too long.

Jones, Naomi McDougall. The Wrong Kind of Woman: Inside Our Revolution To Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood. Beacon. Feb. 2020. ISBN 9780807033456.
Independent filmmaker McDougall lays out the ways in which the industry has sidelined women. Citing research, drawing from personal experience, and interviewing other women who have encountered misogyny, she offers an honest assessment of the dismal state of affairs for women in cinema, but she ends on a hopeful note, discussing the many female indie directors who are effecting change.

Lane, Christina. Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock. Chicago Review. Feb. 2020. ISBN 9781613733844.
Director Alfred Hitchcock wielded, and often abused, great power—and overshadowed many talented women. With this engrossing, well-researched book, Lane resurfaces the accomplishments of producer Joan Harrison, who contributed to Hitchcock’s work on the large and small screens, cowriting the screenplays for Rebecca and Suspicion and producing his successful TV series.

Lim, Shirley Jennifer. Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern. Temple Univ. (Asian American History & Culture). 2019. ISBN 9781439918333.
Considered to be the first Chinese American film star, Anna May Wong wowed audiences but was frustrated by the limits of a racist industry that demanded stereotypical, limiting roles and cast white actors as Asian characters (Wong was passed over for the character O-Lan in The Good Earth in favor for white actress Luise Rainer). Arguing that Wong has often been unfairly dismissed by modern audiences who look askance at her stereotypical performances, Lim ( A Feeling of Belonging: Asian American Women’s Public Culture, 1930–1960 ) offers a detailed and scholarly biography of an artist who despite roadblocks took control of her own image.

Mulvey, Laura. Afterimages: On Cinema, Women and Changing Times. Reaktion. 2019. ISBN 9781789141221.
Feminist film scholar Mulvey (film & media, Birkbeck Coll., Univ. of London; Death 24x a Second) is best known for coining the term the male gaze, or the way in which the camera objectifies women for the pleasure of male viewers. This thoughtful but immensely scholarly work collects several of Mulvey’s lectures and essays. Explorations of Freudian concepts as they relate to film limit the appeal to serious students of film.

O’Meara, Mallory. Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick. Hanover Square: Harlequin. 2019. ISBN 9781335937803.
With this energetic blend of memoir and biography, screenwriter and producer O’Meara interweaves her experiences with sexism in Hollywood with accounts of the misogyny endured by special effects and makeup designer Milicent Patrick, who designed the monster from Creature from the Black Lagoon. Male colleagues who were threatened by seeing a woman in the spotlight prevented Patrick from receiving the recognition she deserved—an incensed O’Meara restores Patrick to her rightful place in the horror film canon.

Waggoner, Linda M. Starring Red Wing! The Incredible Career of Lilian M. St. Cyr, the First Native American Film Star. Bison. 2019. ISBN 9781496215598.
Waggoner, an author and scholar focusing on Ho-Chunk history, chronicles the life of Lilian Margaret St. Cyr, who was born on Nebraska’s Winnebago Reservation and has often been referred to as the first Native American film star. The author focuses both on St. Cyr’s film career and her promotion of Native American causes and culture, making for a fascinating profile of a lesser-known figure who deserves widespread recognition.

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Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor for Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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