“I watched this video of Jada Pinkett Smith talking about (the Oscar nominations), and she said (people of color) need to stop asking for the judges to recognize us,” Heffernan said.
As a student pursuing acting at UNC, Heffernan is still looking for spaces inside the classroom where she can see more people who look like her and have similar experiences to her.
“I can’t even sugarcoat it — I have not seen much diversity in the dramatic art department,” she said. “But I don’t think that the dramatic art department here — especially when it comes down to people who want to perform (after college) — is very large because it is not a BFA program. It is just a BA.”
The visually homogeneous nominations have led to discouragement, but also to inspiration to change the image of Hollywood within the next generation.
“We need to just build our own systems of recognition and recognize ourselves and form these respectable things for ourselves,” she said.
According to its website, “The Department of Dramatic Art supports the University’s core value encouraging diversity and equal educational and employment opportunities throughout the University community.”
In the 2014-15 Diversity Report and in registrar statistics, respectively, UNC reported that African Americans make up about 9 percent of UNC and 8 percent of the dramatic art department. And although 65 percent of UNC students are white, 73 percent of students majoring in dramatic art in spring 2016 are white.
James Vesce, a directing professor and chairman of the Department of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte, said the program in Charlotte is always striving for inclusivity.
“We’ve always had an open-door policy in terms of students who want to join the program, but also we let anyone affiliated with the university audition for our productions,” he said. “Last year, about a third of our students were representing non-white cultures or ethnicities.”
Heffernan said she is glad this issue is sparking discussions, particularly among younger crowds.
“The Oscar nominations is a more blatant example of something that has always kind of been a conversation, especially in the acting or theater community,” she said. “I’m happy that it’s becoming a bigger deal.”
Screenwriting students in NC
Sarah He, a senior writing for the screen and stage minor, said she was unsurprised about this year’s Oscar nominations, especially based on what she learned in her history of screenwriting courses.
“When we did a history of screenwriting class, definitely the whole history is pretty much white-dominated and male-dominated,” she said. “Learning that, as the history of screen writing, isn’t necessarily limiting, but you don’t get to see the possibilities of what somebody with a different voice could do because it hasn’t happened as much, or it isn’t talked about as much.”
Although He is only one of two people of color in this year’s graduating class of the minor, she said she still experiences a diversity of voice and a diversity of experience within the stories students read and write.
According to Dana Coen, director of the writing for the screen and stage minor, the candidates within the minor are an accurate reflection of the population of UNC.
“Since I arrived at the University in 2009, we have accepted 56 men and 57 women into the minor, as well as six African American females, three African American males, seven ethnically diverse applicants and one disabled student,” he said. “Not everyone who has applied has accepted our invitation, so these figures may be higher.”
Coen, who has worked on film and TV production in Hollywood in the past, said he hopes the changing standard of diversity represented in writing programs at the university level will one day be reflected in the Academy, or the body of people who vote for the nominees in the Oscars.
“It’s been noted that millennials are more open to diversity issues,” he said. “In time, they will come to represent the majority of the Academy voters.”
Hollywood-Ready Education vs. Hollywood Reality
Across the UNC system, universities are preparing students for careers in Hollywood, from the filmmaking program at UNC School of the Arts to the theater program at UNC-Charlotte to the Hollywood Internship Program at UNC.
Still, at each school, the professors are encouraging students to pursue their craft and look beyond the current limitations that exist in Hollywood.
Vesce said UNC-Charlotte is doing this by allowing students to get involved in choosing which shows are performed each season.
“We are about 180 degrees from where they stand in the Oscars,” Vesce said. “I don’t think the students would stand for it if we were doing in our seasons what we’ve seen in the last couple of years with the Oscars.”
As a screenwriting minor, He said she has been encouraged by the diversity of recent shows, like “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” but hopes that one day artists will be recognized for the work they produce — not for their race or gender.
Vesce said students should still pursue careers in film.
“I’ve seen artist after artist — whether they are doing Broadway or film — say, ‘Start doing your own work, and start using your own voice,” he said.
“This is the way to kind of break down the industry that is still very much a male-dominated, white industry.”