Russell Williams II: Diversity in Hollywood

On Thursday February 16, 2017 I went to a Cultural Life Program (CLP) on Furman University‘s campus. It was entitled: “Follow the Money: Race to the Oscars.” The CLP expanded on the lack of diversity at the Oscars in the past, as illustrated by #OscarsSoWhite trending on Twitter, and addressed the Hollywood film industry in general. The main draw of the CLP was the guest speaker, Russell Williams II. He was overqualified for this event, having won two Academy Awards for best sound, in 1989 and 1990, and two Prime Time Emmys for outstanding sound mixing, in 1988 and 1998. Williams is now a full time professor in the school of communications at American University in D.C. Overall, I learned a lot from Williams’ lecture about Hollywood, the film business, and diversity behind the camera.

Russell Williams is pictured holding his two, well deserved, Academy Awards.
Russell Williams is pictured holding his two, well deserved, Academy Awards.

Is Hollywood diverse?

A cartoon highlights the race problem in the Academy Awards.
A cartoon highlights the race problem in the Academy Awards.

April Reign created the #oscarssowhite hashtag in 2015 after she noticed a lack of diversity among the nominees. In the lecture, Williams quoted her stating the purpose of the hashtag was to “generate discussion on how the decisions were made, who was cast, and who tells the story behind the camera.” Williams called out Reign for only focusing on the minority actors in front of the camera. He claimed Reign, and others, failed to recognize the achievements of minorities behind the camera.

Williams elaborated through a brief history lesson. Up through the 1920s, silent film was diverse in front of the camera because European actors had the perfect foreign look for film and it didn’t matter how they spoke. Minorities were well represented in front of the camera until sound was added in the 20s to compete with the radio.  Behind the camera, minorities didn’t break into the ranks until the 1960s but they entered with a bang. Williams cited his inspiration for sound production as “In the Heat of the Night” when he saw Quincy Jones and Ray Charles, both African Americans, behind the camera. However, Williams says that today Hollywood is extremely diverse behind the camera, just not in front of it.

Was #OscarsSoWhite the reason for more diverse nominations in 2017?

The 2017 Academy Awards saw in increase in minority nominees. Williams asked if the hashtag caused it. A recent Variety article claims it did, but it didn’t. The hashtag wasn’t responsible. First, behind the camera was already diverse. Second, films take years, sometimes decades, to produce which means the casts were already decided when the hashtag was trending. Williams also stated that with new sources of income, like crowdfunding, diversity will only increase with a broadening market. All in all, it was a great CLP and it was a pleasure to learn from Russell Williams.

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