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Minority Filmmakers Struggle at Edges of Hollywood


The red carpet is out and the stars will be gathering in Hollywood on Sunday for the annual Academy Awards, or Oscars. Most winners will be white, with the possible exception of Latin American director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who may well take the Oscar for his frontier saga The Revenant.

The lack of racial and ethnic diversity has drawn intense criticism, including a complaint from the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which presents the Oscars. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is African American, said she is “heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion” among this year's nominees.

Minority actors, directors and writers are part of the movie industry, even though under-represented in major releases. The hip-hop tale Straight Outta Compton earned a nomination only for its writers, who are white. The boxing saga Creed had a black director, writers and star, but its only nomination went to Sylvester Stallone, a frontrunner for an Oscar as best supporting actor. The Africa-war drama Beasts of No Nation was expected to bring an Oscar nod for actor Idris Elba, but did not.

FILE - Actor Idris Elba. The Africa-war drama Beasts of No Nation was expected to bring an Oscar nod for actor Idris Elba, but did not.

FILE - Actor Idris Elba. The Africa-war drama Beasts of No Nation was expected to bring an Oscar nod for actor Idris Elba, but did not.

Outside the mainstream

But there is a side of the industry that is more diverse than the Hollywood players on display at the Oscars. It includes the Cameroon-born actress and producer Constance Ejuma, who is showing her film Ben & Ara at film festivals worldwide.

Ben & Ara tells the tale of two graduate students, a young man who is an atheist and young woman who is a Muslim. The film stars Ejuma and Joseph Baird, who also wrote the script dealing with relationships, faith, family and cultural tensions.

It's a love story that addresses many themes, Ejuma said. It is “inter-racial, inter-cultural, inter-religious. I think people can relate to all or one of those three things,” she added, “so it is very relevant for our times.”

The film Echo Park stars Tony Okungbowa, a British-Nigerian actor and producer, and is set in a fast-changing neighborhood of Los Angeles. It deals with universal themes of love and conflict, noted Okungbowa, who prefers films like this, in which the story is “the important part and the actors can be interchanged with any culture.”

Echo Park is being distributed by ARRAY, a film collective started by director Ava DuVernay, whose 2014 historical drama Selma told the story of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Selma won an Oscar for its original song “Glory.”

DuVernay is a rarity in Hollywood, a mainstream director who is African American and female.

FILE - Director and executive producer Ava DuVernay poses at a screening of the film "Selma" during AFI Fest 2014 in Hollywood, California, Nov. 11, 2014.

FILE - Director and executive producer Ava DuVernay poses at a screening of the film "Selma" during AFI Fest 2014 in Hollywood, California, Nov. 11, 2014.

More diverse films needed

But Tony Okungbowa says the the issue of diversity goes beyond individual movie makers and movies. “While there were some films that could have been recognized this year,” he said, “the bigger issue is there are not enough films being made that have diverse characters in them.”

Financing and distribution are difficult, but international and minority artists in Hollywood are getting their films made, often with help from friends and family, and crowd-funding sites on the Internet. Constance Ejuma said “we do have a responsibility, people in my shoes, to continue telling our stories regardless of whether or not we have the support of the mainstream.”

A new study from the University of Southern California confirms that women and minorities are under-represented in major movies and television. Filmmakers Ejuma and Okungbowa say that mainstream Hollywood, and awards shows like the Oscars, have some catching up to do to reflect the diversity that is already present in the industry.

Ben & Ara has upcoming festival showings in Venice and and Cameroon. Echo Park has theatrical openings scheduled for Los Angeles and New York.

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