Denzel Washington is one of the most celebrated actors to have ever come out of Hollywood. He has won practically every award worth winning: two Academy Awards, three Golden Globes, one Screen Actors Guild Awards, and one Tony. He’s even been nominated for a Grammy.
Despite all of this success, however, Washington has never been nominated, let alone won, a BAFTA. Whilst his exclusion by the British Academy is surprising, it is unfortunately, according to analysis Jo Kandola and I have carried out into the BAFTAs, typical of the experience of BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) actors.
We examined eleven award categories: Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actress in Leading Role, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Rising Star, Best Director, Best Film, Outstanding British Film, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Screenplay and the Fellowship. The first five categories could be considered to be in front of the camera and the latter six, behind.
First the good news. Every male BAME nominee has gone on to win Best Actor; an impressive 100% conversion ratio. The bad news is that only five have ever been nominated. Three of the winners were black, one South Asian (from the Indian sub-continent) and one from East Asia.
95% of the nominees for Best Actor were white - the same percentage as for Best Actress. Unlike their male counterparts, however, no BAME woman has ever succeeded in winning the award.
There are a number of factors that could explain why there is such disparity. Firstly, we could be witnessing bias on the part of BAFTA voters. It’s difficult to determine the ethnicity of the voting members, but to its credit, BAFTA has tried. In 2016, BAFTA’s 7,500 members were sent a survey to complete on an anonymous and voluntary basis. The results revealed that 41% of respondents were female, 13% from minority ethnic groups and there was a median age of 52.
However, over half of the members (54%) didn’t respond, making it difficult to draw any firm conclusions from this particular study. This type of approach is not considered unusual in many organisations, and so the poor response to BAFTA’s survey unfortunately tells a tale in itself. In an industry where people will publicly declare their liberal, open-minded and tolerant attitudes, the fact that less than half could be bothered to take part in an effort to identify potential problems makes it hard to believe that they would endorse anything more proactive.
Another area to explore is nominations. When black actors were first cast in films, they would regularly be found in highly stereotypical roles, such as The Mammy - a black female slave, whose role is to look after the children of her owners.
As times have changed, these highly defamatory depictions became unacceptable to white audiences. Now though, a new set of rules appears to be in place. Our BAFTA analysis of the BAME winners and nominees in the front-of-camera awards suggests that to be considered, they needed to be performing what we term a race-related role, i.e. no-one other than a minority could have played it.
The successful BAME actors and actors were also likely to be portraying real people. The five winning Best Actor performances, for example, were for Mahatma Gandhi (Gandhi). Ray Charles (Ray), Idi Amin (The Last King of Scotland), Solomon Northup (12 Years a Slave), and Dith Pran (The Killing Fields).
The advice to BAME men would therefore appear to be that if you want recognition for a performance, play a real person. As the Denzel Washington conundrum reveals though, having played the lead in several biopics, there is still no guarantee of an award.
BAME women, comparatively, have a much better chance of gaining a Best Supporting Actress award. BAME women comprise 7% of the nominees in this category and 17% of the winners, having won on eight occasions. However, there is clearly still bias at play, considering that most of the roles in which BAME women have succeeded could be considered race-related.
Part of the reason for the longevity of stereotypes in film, and the media more generally, is that the majority audience had an understanding, albeit racist, of the characters and so had no difficulty believing in them. This norm appears to have been replaced, however, with black and minority actors playing famous people. It’s an improvement but one that is still limiting the roles that are available to minorities.
My final point though, is that the nominations and the awards are nothing more than a reflection of bias in the industry and the people who are lucky enough to work in it. In his opening monologue as host of the 2016 Oscars ceremony, Chris Rock welcomed everyone to “the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards.” He went on to say, “You see all these writers and producers and actors? They don’t hire black people and they’re the nicest white people on earth!”
Racism has changed. The ‘old-fashioned’, overt racism that was a feature of the film industry many years ago has not gone away, but has been replaced with something that is seen as more acceptable. In actuality, however, ‘modern’, more subtle racism is just as exclusive. And it’s carried out by ‘nice’ people.
This still doesn’t completely explain the Denzel Washington but may go a long way to doing so.