Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 October 2019

Hollywood is changing but women still face an uphill battle

The world of cinema is more diverse than ever before, so why is this not being reflected in major award nominations?

Viola Davis in a scene from the feminist crime caper Widows. 20th Century Fox/AP
Viola Davis in a scene from the feminist crime caper Widows. 20th Century Fox/AP

A 35-year-old woman from Scotland has recently won what must be one of the world’s most gruelling races. Earlier this month Jasmin Paris ran 268 miles along the Pennine Way, the ridge of rugged peaks that extends from northern England up to the Scottish borders. Known as the Montane Spine Race, the competition takes place continuously through night and day, on tracks where one slip could result in serious injury. No man or woman has ever come close to Ms Paris’s record time of just over 83 hours. As the mother of a young baby, she took short stops en route to express milk to feed her child, who was being looked after by her husband. Reading over these words, they could be an idea for an inspirational feature film.

Women’s lives and how women are portrayed by the entertainment industry is the hottest of hot topics right now. It’s Oscar season in the United States and here in the UK,we are preparing for the British film awards. I’m proud to be one of the Bafta voting members and, fortunately, the feats of endurance demanded of me only involve sitting in cinemas and at home watching DVDs of the best films made in 2018. It has been a delight, in part because Hollywood appears to be undergoing a profound shift, embracing diversity and creating space for women’s stories to be told.

A couple of years ago I interviewed both Meryl Streep and Ava DuVernay, the African-American director of Selma and the Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary 13th. They are two of the most famous individuals behind campaigns tackling the lack of on-screen roles for women, ageism, the marginalisation of women’s experience by Hollywood producers and directors, and the dearth of movies that reflect the lives of people of colour.

When I asked DuVernay how many African-American women directors worked in Hollywood, she replied that she knew them all and that they could meet for lunch and sit around one table. Streep said it was astonishing that Hollywood paid so little attention to women’s stories when they make up half of the movie-going public.

Now, this appears to be changing. The #MeToo movement and the #OscarsSoWhite campaign have clearly had an effect. Many of the best films this year are about women. The Favourite is a costume drama set in the 18th-century court of Queen Anne of England, charting the tempestuous relationships between three women. Mary Queen of Scots, directed by Josie Rourke, focuses on the political rivalry between the Mary and England’s Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century. Meanwhile, Colette is the story of a French writer whose novels were published under her husband’s name until she freed herself from his grasp. Even Vice, the remarkable, male-dominated film about the former US vice president Dick Cheney, makes it clear that his wife, played by Amy Adams, was the real force behind his drive for power.

When it comes to the on-screen representation of non-white actors, the change is equally striking. Viola Davis takes the lead role in Widows, a feminist crime caper co-written by Gillian Flynn, while the bittersweet If Beale Street Could Talk is told in the voice of a young African-American woman. The Green Book is essentially a buddy movie about a white driver and a black musician in the American south in the 1960s. Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman is an often hilarious dissection of white racism. The blockbusting success of Black Panther also proves that calls for more diversity in Hollywood are not just politically sound – they make commercial sense too.

However, women remain notably absent among the nominees for the most coveted Oscar. The movie magazine Variety puts it this way: “Unconscionable. Unbelievable. Unsurprising. Once again, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has failed to nominate even a single woman in its best director category. It is the 86th time in the Academy’s 91-year history of awarding Oscars that the membership has seen fit to nominate an exclusively male slate.”

Of course some women directors – DuVernay, Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow among them – do break through, and receive the acclaim that comes with an Oscar nomination. But Variety reports that women account for just 8 per cent of the directors on the top 250 films of 2018. I have also heard from British women directors of how difficult it is to be taken seriously by producers and to raise money. Perhaps the success of women-centred films this year will prove the catalyst for industry-wide change. For now, though, for a woman to be nominated as best director at the Oscars is a feat not so far removed from running 268 miles in 83 hours along a perilous mountain track.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter

Updated: January 28, 2019 02:41 PM

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