Bradford Young was literally in the dark when he received the news that he had been nominated for an Academy Award. The 39-year-old cinematographer, who is in the running for an Oscar for his work on “Arrival,” was looking at test footage in a color-grading suite in London, where he’s shooting the upcoming “Star Wars” Han Solo spinoff.
“Ava told me,” Young recalled in a telephone conversation this week. “She sent me a text. I was just sitting in a dark room, in the middle of the afternoon, tired, and I had kind of forgotten about it, to tell you the truth. So getting that text was kind of surreal.”
It’s appropriate that Young would hear the big news by way of “Ava” — also known as Ava DuVernay, whose films “Middle of Nowhere” and “Selma” Young worked on as a cinematographer, and who is nominated herself this year, for her documentary “13th.” Both DuVernay’s and Young’s nominations count as milestones — “13th” is the first feature-length film directed by an African American woman to be nominated for an Oscar, and Young is the first African American cinematographer to be nominated. (Remi Adefarasin, a British cinematographer of Nigerian descent, was nominated in 1999 for his work on “Elizabeth.”) Editor Joi McMillon also made history as the first African American female editor to be nominated for an Oscar, for her work on “Moonlight.”
That he represents a cultural milestone has conjured “bittersweet” feelings for Young, who is part of a long line of cinematographers to have emerged from Howard University, a lineage that includes Arthur Jafa (“Daughters of the Dust,” “Crooklyn”), Ernest Dickerson (“Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X”) and Malik Sayeed (“Clockers,” “Belly”), who came of age under the tutelage of such seminal figures as Haile Gerima and cinematographer Johnny Simmons.
Whereas the “sweet” part of being nominated has to do with the respect and encouragement of peers Young admires, the “bitter,” he noted, is that the academy “was never part of the scenario” when he was coming up at Howard. “I always thought we’d keep it fiercely independent and make film in our community, and I always thought the Academy Awards were not for us.
“On one hand, I have the impostor syndrome, like I think Natasha Braier [who shot ‘The Neon Demon’] should have had my slot,” he said. “On the other hand, why does my work warrant recognition and why not ‘Malcolm X’ or ‘Belly’ or ‘Clockers’ or ‘Daughters of the Dust’ or ‘Crooklyn’? It all goes back to my anxiety about being part of this conversation, that these rooms are filled with people who don’t look like me, and who don’t have friends who look like me or A.J. or Ava or Johnny.”
Although an impressive number of actors and filmmakers of color are nominated for Oscars this year, a cursory glance at “below the line” jobs — crafts such as cinematography, editing, production, and costume design and sound — reveals that, if such visible fields as acting and directing are making slight progress in inclusion, cinema’s working class is even more overwhelmingly white and male.
Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but according to a 2016 Variety article, an informal count came up with fewer than 25 people of color within the 400-plus active membership of the American Cinema Editors. According to the International Cinematographers Guild, 15 percent of its membership is female; the union is gathering information on the ethnic heritage of its members.
Although individual studios, unions and professional organizations have spearheaded pipeline-diversity initiatives, progress has been incremental at best. The Women’s Media Center recently found that women accounted for only 20 percent of this year’s non-acting Oscar nominees, a figure that lines up with similar findings by San Diego State researcher Martha Lauzen.
A study released last week by researchers at UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies found even less progress where ethnicity is concerned, noting that “if the goal is to actually make significant progress on the industry diversity front, a major shift in thinking is required” and concluding that “diversity work needs to be grounded in a demographic restructuring of Hollywood organizations from top to bottom.”
This is what Young was getting at when he spoke of “rooms filled with people who don’t look like me.” Far too often, when producers and directors are hiring their crews — or, more specifically, the department heads who will in turn hire the crews — they reflexively turn to people who look like them. Whether that’s a function of laziness, comfort level or outright animus, the result is a cycle of exclusion that has proved vexingly difficult to break.
That is, until someone decides to break it. As the television producer Ryan Murphy observed in the Hollywood Reporter last year, “When you see who men choose to mentor, for the most part it’s people who look like them — but 2 inches shorter and 20 years younger.” In response, he launched a foundation called Half, to mentor women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community; Murphy’s goal is that those groups will represent at least 50 percent of the directing slots on his shows, which include “American Crime Story,” “American Horror Story” and “Scream Queens.”
DuVernay took even more decisive action when she was producing the OWN series “Queen Sugar” last year: Not only did she hire exclusively female directors for each installment (most of them women of color), but she also made sure that the writers’ room and crew weren’t populated by the usual cadre of white guys. At the “Queen Sugar” premiere, she made a point of bringing Christiana Hooks, the African American associate producer who oversaw postproduction, to the stage. “A lot of people do not know that there is this position,” she told the audience, “and they don’t know that a sister can do it.”
Murphy’s and DuVernay’s enlightened hiring practices exemplify affirmative action in its purest expression — not because they’re checking boxes or filling quotas, but because they know that, in the most collaborative medium, every member of the creative and technical team informs and influences the story that ends up on screen and how it’s told.
And, considering how well the most inclusive stories and casts do with audiences — from the “Fast and Furious” movies to “Hidden Figures” — if Hollywood doesn’t understand that, it’s Hollywood’s loss, artistically and financially.
For Young, the Oscars ceremony is just the most visible tip of a struggle that continues, both inside and outside the industry system. “At a certain point, every generation claims its purpose,” Young said. “And I’ve claimed my purpose in that I don’t want to spend one more hour trying to convince white supremacists to allow me to be a part of their conversation. I want to build my own institutions based on ideas I believe in.
“All the men and women who’ve been nominated, who I firmly believe are thinking about building a better society, what they all bring to the table is hard work,” he continued. “Our activism, our worldview is in the work. [‘Moonlight’s’] James Laxton’s worldview is in the work. [‘Lion’s] Greig Fraser’s worldview is in the work. Ava’s worldview is in the work. If they never uttered a word, their work is activism. Their work is pushing against those problematic structures we’ve been fighting for 400 years.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized “Queen Sugar” as a miniseries.