New data reveals how #OscarsSoWhite changed the Academy Awards
People of color are winning for off-camera work and in supporting roles, but the odds are longer for best actress and actor
A new analysis of more than 1,200 nominees and winners of Academy Awards dating back to 2000 shows that people of color have made significant — albeit uneven — progress over the past two decades in the movie industry’s premier contest, with most of the changes coming since the inception of the #OscarsSoWhite movement in 2015.
But even as we look forward to this weekend’s Oscars broadcast, with multiple nominations for King Richard, West Side Story and The Tragedy of Macbeth, last year’s experience offers reasons for caution.
The 2021 Academy Awards was an especially hopeful one for people of color. It featured a record number of nominees, including meaningful ones for films such as Judas and the Black Messiah and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The latter featured a best actor nomination for the late Chadwick Boseman, which would have made him the first posthumous winner in an acting category since Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight in 2009. But Boseman did not win, nor did many nominees in the other prestige categories. Across the acting, directing, screenwriting and producing categories, only four of the 23 people of color who were nominated took home an award, or just above 17% of those nominated.
The outcome led to questions about whether this low percentage reflected a pattern. That is, while we might celebrate the increase in the numbers of those nominated, were people of color getting invited to the ball, but never asked to dance?
To address this question, we examined data on more than two decades of Academy Award nominees and winners in the four premier acting categories — best actress/actor, best supporting actress/actor — and the four most prestigious behind-the-camera categories — best original screenplay (writers), best adapted screenplay (writers), best director and best picture (producers). The patterns we found highlight the complex terrain of diversity in an industry that is still evolving in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite movement.
- In the decade and a half before #OscarsSoWhite (2000-2015) there were five years of films (2002, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2010) for which no person of color won an Oscar in any of the eight premier categories, either in front of the camera or behind it. The last six years are responsible for roughly half of the total number of people of color who were nominated and won Oscars since 2000.
- People of color nominated for behind-the-scenes work have a relatively high winning percentage. The same pattern holds true in the supporting actor and actress categories, suggesting that talented actors of color are disproportionately cast in supporting roles.
- But in the two main acting categories — best actress and best actor — people of color have far lower odds of being nominated and winning than their supporting counterparts, with women of color especially underrepresented among both nominees and winners.
The central questions
Conversations around diversity in Hollywood have ramped up since the #OscarsSoWhite movement first called out the lack of diversity in the 2015 Academy Award nominees. The criticism shed light not only on the numerical lack of representation, but also on the antiquated processes that underlie how films are promoted and nominated.
In 2021, we published an analysis of best picture nominees since the start of the #OscarsSoWhite movement to identify trends in diversity for the casts and crews in those films. Our findings suggested that while #OscarsSoWhite had a meaningful impact on discourse, its impact on representation in nominated films had not been sustained.
But that earlier analysis was limited to one award category and also had not fully incorporated the effects of a post-George Floyd/Breonna Taylor world. The Black Lives Matter movement amplified conversations about race and representation in many fields, including entertainment. In September 2020, months after national protests had begun, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which runs the Oscars, established new diversity standards for best picture nominees. And while these new standards — including the need for an actor or significant supporting actor of color in order to be eligible — don’t take effect until 2024, the discussions may have contributed to the record-high number of people of color nominated in 2021.
These conversations raise questions about what happens when more people of color are nominated. Does it lead to more winners or not? And are there differences between the success rates for acting or behind-the-camera roles with regards to nominees versus winners? What would it mean if, for example, a given category had a relatively high number of winners despite a low number of nominees? Is this good news?
Our first task was to establish a relevant time window for our study. Rather than confine our analysis to the #OscarsSoWhite era, we opted for a more rigorous longitudinal approach, going back to the year 2000. And rather than looking solely at the casts and crews for best picture nominees as we did a year ago, we aimed to do something more ambitious: analyze the racial, ethnic and gender representation of nominees and winners across multiple acting and behind-the-camera categories: best supporting actress, best supporting actor, best actress, best actor, best original screenplay (writers), best adapted screenplay (writers), best director and best picture (the producers).
In this discussion, the year associated with a film refers to when it was released, rather than when the Academy Awards took place. For example, the 2021 Academy Awards featured films that were released in 2020.
First, we counted the number of nominees and winners across time, between 2000 and 2020. We then calculated two types of percentages:
- For nomination percentages, we took the number of people of color nominated and divided by the total number of individuals nominated.
- For winning percentages, we divided the number of people of color who won in their category by the number of people of color nominated.
Before and after #OscarsSoWhite
Our analysis reveals a meaningful impact from the #OscarSoWhite movement. The total number of people of color nominated in our selected categories only cracked double digits once before 2015 (in 2006, the year of Dreamgirls, Blood Diamond, The Last King of Scotland and The Pursuit of Happyness). Since then, the double-digit barrier has been breached in four out of five years (2016, 2017, 2018, 2020) with a record number of nominations (23) happening last year. The six years since #OscarsSoWhite have seen more nominated producers (18) and writers (23) of color than in the previous 15 years (12 and 17, respectively). Winners show a trend in the same direction, with four producers and eight writers winning since the start of #OscarsSoWhite, compared to two winning producers and six winning writers between 2000 and 2015.
Before #OscarsSoWhite (2000-2015), there were five years in which no person of color won in the major categories. In total, the six years since the start of the #OscarsSoWhite movement (2016-2021) are responsible for 48% of the total number of people of color who were nominated since 2000, and half (50%) of all winners.
These findings suggest that #OscarsSoWhite was a powerful influence for individual nominations and wins in the major categories.
“#OscarsSoWhite, in part, helped to shine a light on what has always been there,” said April Reign, a lawyer and media strategist who founded the movement. “Which is excellence by people of color, in the entertainment industry in front of, and behind the camera.”
While #OscarsSoWhite appears to have had a notable impact on the total number of nominations and winners, an analysis of how those nominations and wins were distributed across different categories reveals surprising patterns. For example, gains in both nominations and wins for behind-the-camera roles have been substantial, with well over half of the nominations (53%) and wins (54%) for people of color taking place since the 2016 Oscars (featuring films released in 2015).
In general, behind-the-camera roles have a much larger winning percentage than nomination percentage (as we defined them above). Said differently: While people of color behind the camera don’t make up a large number of nominees, once those individuals are nominated, they have a disproportionate chance of winning.
How do we interpret this? Does this point to an advantage for being a person of color in behind-the-camera roles? Or does it imply, instead, that people of color are being undernominated for these roles?
Patterns of nomination and winning: the two scenarios
To help explain this, we divided the Oscar categories into two buckets:
- Case 1: Low nomination percentage, low winning percentage: best actress, best actor, best picture (producers).
- Case 2: Low nomination percentage, high win percentage: best supporting actor, best supporting actress, director, cinematographer, original screenplay, adapted screenplay.
(For simplicity, we used 25% as the cutoff for “high” or “low” nomination or winning percentage.)
By looking at these two cases, we can see some larger patterns for behind-the-camera roles. Of all categories, only the director category has a winning percentage of 50% or higher, as compared to 17% of nominees (a staggering 33% gap between the person of color winning percentage and nominee percentage). But this pattern of low nomination percentage and high winning percentage describes all of the behind-the-camera roles, except the producers in the best picture category, where only 7% of nominees were people of color, with 20% of them producers of award-winning films.
While our study of behind-the-camera nominations and wins focused on the 2000-2020 window, it’s instructive to note the long history of the lack of representation at the Oscars:
- Chloé Zhao (Nomadland, 2020) is the only woman of color nominee and the only such winner for best director.
- Only four Black writers have been nominated in the best original screenplay category in the Oscars’ 90-year history: Suzanne de Passe (Lady Sings the Blues, 1972), Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, 1989), John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood, 1991) and Jordan Peele (Get Out, 2017).
- Before 2000, only three people of color had ever been nominated for best director: Héctor Babenco (Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1985), Singleton (Boyz n the Hood, 1991) and M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, 1999).
Acting roles (2000-2020)
In contrast to significant increases in behind-the-camera representation, the six years after the #OscarsSoWhite movement have seen a smaller but still notable increase in nominations and wins in the four acting categories, with roughly 40% of nominations and wins taking place in this window. But there are major differences between the best actress/actor categories and the supporting actress/actor categories.
Both supporting actress and actor display Case 2 behavior (similar to cinematographer), where relatively few are nominated, but those who are nominated have a good shot at winning: Supporting actresses are nominated at a 19% clip, but have won 35% of the total awards since 2000. People of color make up just over 14% of supporting actor nominees, but roughly one-third of winners.
The pattern looks more puzzling when we compare the results in the supporting categories to those of main actors. Unlike the supporting actor category, the lead actor displays Case 1 behavior, in which few are nominated and, even when nominated, few win. This is especially true in the best actress category. When it comes to women of color in leading roles, the model is familiar: They are good enough to be invited, but not awarded.
What would explain the difference in results between supporting and main actors? The most obvious explanation would suggest that the academy is disproportionately honoring people of color in the less visible of the acting jobs, a model that speaks to how underrepresented people of color are in feature roles. But there is another potential explanation: that the most talented people of color are only nominated for supporting roles when they should be either cast as or nominated for main actor roles.
An egregious example of this scenario played out during the 2021 Academy Awards, when both Daniel Kaluuya (the eventual winner) and LaKeith Stanfield were nominated in the supporting actor category for 2020’s Judas and the Black Messiah. The reasons for this are complicated, and involve the politics behind how studios decide to put forward cast members for nominations. But this situation reflects the complex terrain that might contribute to the broader disparities between why people of color have more success in the best supporting actress and actor categories than their best actress and actor counterparts.
Phillip Atiba Goff, a professor at Yale University and the founder of JusticeRx, a company that works with Warner Bros. on social justice issues, said that the differences between supporting and main acting roles are significant. “When you start trying to talk about equity in the industry, you better start understanding that a lead role isn’t just sort of an artistic position. It’s a moneyed position,” he said.
Being in a lead role “doesn’t just mean that you get more money,” but that “your production agency gets more power to determine what does and doesn’t go … that you are the one in charge deciding what story you’re gonna tell.”
Reign echoed Goff’s observation and said that when it comes to who gets nominated for which roles, “some of that is political, some of that is studio-based, sometimes the actor or actress and/or the studio decide that they will have a better shot at winning if they put themselves in the supporting category as opposed to the lead category.”
Besides the wider trends, our analysis highlighted several surprising singular findings:
- Only once has there been more than one person of color nominated for best actress in the same year (2020, with Viola Davis for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Andra Day for The United States vs. Billie Holiday).
- Only one person of color has ever won for best actor when they were the sole person of color actor nominated that year — Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018. Black actors have only won when multiple people of color were nominated. For example, Jamie Foxx won best actor for Ray (2004), in a category that also featured Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda).
- Denzel Washington’s consistent excellence cannot be overstated: He has seven nominations (including for his portrayal of Macbeth in 2021) for best actor, winning once for his portrayal of Detective Alonzo Harris in 2001’s Training Day. Three of these nominations came after 2015.
2022 and beyond
The February announcement of the Academy Awards nominations featured a feel-good moment in which Phylicia Rashad, dean of the newly named Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts at Howard University, helped to lead the announcement of the 2022 best actor nominees.
She noted that Boseman, a Howard graduate, had been nominated the previous year for best actor. The irony, of course, is that Boseman didn’t win. Our analysis highlights how this is reflective of a pattern.
But for all of the barriers to opportunities for actors, the behind-the-camera patterns reveal a different story. People of color have relatively high odds of winning once they are nominated, which we argue is indicative of ecology where they remain undernominated. That is, only the most exceptional individuals are receiving behind-the-camera opportunities, which translates to them winning at a relatively high clip.
More broadly, we suggest that these findings show that the story of diversity, not only in Hollywood but in many other areas, is a complex one, where our goals must shift to match the changing landscape.
Further, our results fortify the importance of “Hashtag Activism” movements like #OscarsSoWhite. Not only has the movement led to structural change in the nomination process at the academy, we see its immediate effects on nominations and wins. These gains don’t mean the problem has been solved, of course. But generations of people who have fought for racial equality have long known that change is almost never overnight, nor simple in execution. Anti-racism in these spaces must be just as multifaceted as the historical and structural forces that created the gaps we hope to fix.
Reign said the new diversity guidelines scheduled to go into effect in 2024 are insufficient, comparing them to “putting window dressing on a condemned house.” The “loopholes with respect to their new framing are large enough to drive a truck through. A film like Gone With the Wind would still qualify,” she said. “So what’s the point?”
Instead, Reign said that studios should ask themselves: “Who are you hiring behind the camera? What does your writing room, your screenwriting process look like? Who are your producers? And start asking the question, why not?”
The years described in the data refer to the year that the film was released, not the year that the movie was nominated. For example, the films nominated for Academy Awards in 2021 were released in 2020.
How and why did we choose certain categories? In 2021, we focused our study on the composition of casts and crews of films nominated for best picture. In 2022, we have expanded our study significantly. The compiled data goes back over two decades, and we have now compiled data across several high-profile Academy Award categories: Producer (best picture), writer (best original and adapted screenplay), director (best director), cinematographer (best cinematography) and actor (best actress; best supporting actress; best actor; best supporting actor). These constitute high-profile jobs in front of and behind the camera, and serve as good proxy categories for the state of diversity and prestige in the entertainment industry.
How did we identify ethnicity? Race/ethnicity and gender were determined by the research team using the following: by viewing photographs and videos of the individuals, from various sources, then investigating their nationality and family lineage. We recognize that perceptions of race and gender can be imprecise, but this is a limitation of almost all studies of this kind. We also recognize that individuals may self-identify differently from how they are categorized in this study. We must note, however, that with respect to issues of diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry, perception is a key metric.
Data availability: The data used in the study can be found here. For other questions, please contact C. Brandon Ogbunu (@big_data_kane) or Nelson Bennett (@adibogodi).