A conversation with Kermit Frazier, Adelphi professor of English and a member of the Writers Guild of America
With the recent release of the Academy Awards nominees list, much has been said about the lack of non-white representation among those named. Questions have been raised about whether the Academy itself is responsible or if it is a symptom of a greater problem in the film industry. We talked to Kermit Frazier, Adelphi University professor of English and a playwright and screenwriter, about diversity in the entertainment industry and specifically how the Oscars have brought this issue to the forefront.
What do you think the Academy Awards and the film industry have to do to move towards better representing the demographics of the general population?
The problem is structural. I’m not the first person to give this assessment. I just happen to agree with it. It also has to do with the way that Hollywood works. People get jobs because they know other people because they work in the same circles. They get hired because they have been hired before. So getting into those circles is one of the challenges. If white actors, directors and producers only talk to each other, there is no way that an African American, or an Asian American or Latino artists can break in through. People gravitate to the circles that they gravitate towards.
Will creating a more diverse voting body change the status quo?
Certainly. I vote but I only vote in my part of the industry—the Writers Guild of America. Only writers in the Writers Guild can vote for the Writers Guild awards. Unless you are a member of the Academy, you can’t vote in the Academy Awards best screenplay. You have to be invited to be a member of the Academy. And it’s like nepotism—being invited means you got to know or that you connect to and hang around with members of the Academy.
Do you think that someone like Chris Rock, who has a platform, has an obligation to use his position to bring awareness to these issues?
It’s tricky to say when you say, “So and so has an obligation.” Does that mean that they have an obligation to say what you want them to say? Or that they just have an obligation to speak? I wrote an awards ceremony once too. They’re scripted. You don’t just adlib. He would have to go off book unless he has writers who are going to give him things. One of the interesting things is how funny is this going to be? To what extent is he going to be able to make jokes? Because there is serious stuff underneath it.
On a related note, Adelphi started a Racial Justice Matters initiative last year. If you could have one thing that people take away from this initiative, what would it be?
It’s always better if people talk to each other than if they don’t. I think that some of the misunderstanding is inherent and some of the misunderstanding is deliberate and some of the misunderstanding is lack of interaction. The words that have floated through all of these things are conversation and dialogue. Silo is another metaphor that’s used often. People are in their own silos. That’s not good if you want to have diversity and you want to talk about it.
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