February 22, 2017

Journey to the Academy Awards: A Decade of Race & Gender in Oscar-Shortlisted Documentaries (2008-2017)

by Caty Borum Chattoo, Nesima Aberra, Michele Alexander, Chandler Green

In the Best Documentary Feature category of the Academy Awards, 2017 is a year of firsts. For the first time, four of the five Oscar-nominated documentary directors in the category are people of color (Roger Ross Williams, for Life, Animated; Ezra Edelman, for O.J.: Made in America; Ava DuVernay, for 13th; and Raoul Peck, for I Am Not Your Negro). In fact, 2017 reveals the largest percentage of Oscar-shortlisted documentary directors of color over at least the past decade. Almost a third (29 percent) of this year’s 17 credited Oscar-shortlisted documentary directors (in the Best Documentary Feature category) are people of color, up from 18 percent in 2016, none in 2015, and 17 percent in 2014. The percentage of recognized women documentary directors, while an increase from last year (24 percent of recognized shortlisted directors in 2017 are women, compared to 18 percent in 2016), remains at relatively the same low level of recognition over the past decade.

In 2016, as a response to widespread criticism and negative media coverage, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences welcomed a record number of new members to become part of the voting class to bestow Academy Awards: 683 film professionals (46 percent women, 41 percent people of color) were invited in. According to the Academy, prior to this new 2016 class, its membership was 92 percent white and 75 percent male.

To represent the documentary category, 42 new documentary creative professionals (directors and producers) were invited as new members. Over the past several years, criticism about "Oscars so white" reached beyond the ranks of Hollywood’s inner business circles into consumer consciousness. However, the media and public backlash largely focused on the entertainment business' big scripted films, actors and actresses. The documentary feature category is largely excluded from the cultural conversation about diversity and inclusion in entertainment storytelling, despite the documentary genre's vital place in the marketplace and a functioning democracy. And yet, despite notable achievements and improvement in recognizing directors of color and female directors, the documentary field may have similar challenges of diversity and inclusion. This study spotlights at least one important numerical reality of the challenge - at one notable level of international achievement in film.

The complete study from the Center for Media & Social Impact is available below.