“I’m not crying because I’m on my period or anything,” exclaimed filmmaker Rayka Zehtabchi, through tears of joy, at the 91st Academy Awards.
Sunday night, Zehtabchi’s film “Period: End of Sentence.,” about empowering women in India by addressing the stigma around menstruation, won the Oscar for best short documentary. While this category tends to recognize subject matter that is more overtly political than narrative-driven, Zehtabchi and her collaborator Melissa Berton delivered impassioned statements about social equality that echoed acceptance speeches across categories. Many award winners championed feminism, immigration rights, racial equality and artistic expression.
Veteran costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who has been nominated twice before, accepted her first Oscar for “Black Panther” and beamed as she thanked the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “for honoring African royalty and the empowered way women can look and lead on screen.”
Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón thanked Mexico three times — once during each of the awards he received (best cinematography, best director and best foreign film) for his autobiographical film “Roma,” which centers on a female domestic worker. He paid tribute to domestic employees who, in real life, lack workers’ rights and “have been relegated to the background in cinema.”
And Regina King described how representing “one of the greatest artists of our time, James Baldwin, is a little surreal” as she held her statue for best supporting actress for “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
When considering this year’s Oscars within a historical context, the nominees and winners are an outcome of the high-profile activism that has taken place recently in the entertainment industry — and an impetus for continued efforts.
In 2015 and 2016, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign pushed the Academy, with its predominantly white male membership, to include more women and people of color. In 2018, of those the Academy invited to join its ranks, 49 percent were women, thereby increasing the total number of women in the organization to 31 percent, compared with 28 percent in 2017. Of the 2018 invitees, 38 percent were people of color, boosting their representation to 16 percent, compared with 13 percent in 2017.
Also in 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union instigated a federal inquiry into discrimination against women directors, which is currently being investigated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And since 2017, allegations of sexual misconduct, bolstered by the Me Too and Time’s Up movements, have prompted the removal of numerous men from positions of power and sparked serious conversations about legal recourse and protection in the industry.
In the 1970s, activism within the industry, with an emphasis on feminist reform efforts, began to ramp up. Take 1971, when the Writers Guild of America women’s committee was founded. The committee began collecting data, which it released to the press, exposing specific television shows’ abominably low numbers of women writers. The Screen Actors Guild established its women’s committee and minority committee in 1972.
Working together, these groups monitored primetime programming and commercials, tracking the paltry number of women and actors of color, especially in significant, well-paying roles.
At the time, these groups could only get studios and television networks to negotiate good faith agreements that promised they would try to practice more inclusive hiring. The statistics continued to sputter along. The Directors Guild of America, historically the union least inclined toward the social justice movements that defined the 1960s and 1970s, was forced into action in 1979 by six of its female members — now known as the Original Six. These members collected statistics on the low number of women who had directed feature films and television programs. They presented their findings to heads of broadcast networks, studio executives and production companies. These industry leaders rejected the women’s affirmative action proposals.
In 1983, the Directors Guild filed a class action suit against Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros. for employment discrimination on behalf of the union’s female and minority members. Judge Pamela Rymer, in 1985, ruled against the guild — she noted that a union whose membership was mostly white men could not be a representative for its minority classes. The Directors Guild did not pursue the suit further.
Present-day activism has its roots in these efforts made some 40 years ago, but today’s climate shows the promise of difference. Just last month, the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative presented its 4 percent challenge to film studios, asking the companies to increase the number of women directors by hiring one female filmmaker on a feature film in the next 18 months. Universal Pictures and MGM Studios were the first to join.
What’s more, filmmakers aren’t just speaking up publicly about inclusion — some have the ability to hire more inclusively across age, gender, nationality, race and sexual orientation. They’re presenting a call to action, as was on display in so many of last night’s speeches.
To use the Oscars as a litmus test for “progress” in an industry that historically operates with longstanding traditions of exclusion, both on- and off-screen, is a lesson in balancing lofty words with indicators of real change. The numbers tells us that progress creeps along at a snail’s pace and in many cases stays stagnant (for example, the number of women directing the 250 highest-grossing films has hovered between 8 and 11 percent for the last 20 years).
But we cannot dismiss the achievements of diverse artists and what their appearance during Hollywood’s most precious night means. Accepting her award for best animated short, “Bao’s” Chinese-Canadian director, Domee Shi, offered some sage advice: “To all the nerdy girls out there who hide behind their sketchbooks, don’t be afraid to tell your stories to the world.”
The day after the Oscars, let’s hope these stories continue to be told — and that the world listens.
Maya Montañez Smukler manages the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Research and Study Center. Her recent book, “Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors & the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema,” is available from Rutgers University Press.