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French Film Awards Held Amid Calls for More Diversity

Alexis Manenti holds his best male newcomer Cesar award at a ceremony sometimes dubbed "French Oscars," in Paris, France, Feb. 28, 2020.

France’s annual Cesar Award film ceremony Friday is already clouded in controversy, with a shake-up of its board, sexual assault accusations against top director Roman Polanski, and now, fresh calls for more diversity on screen.

After Hollywood, French cinema is having its own introspective moment. The latest hashtag trending this week is #BlackCesars, after some 30 leading members of France’s film industry denounced its lack of diversity.

In an open letter published in a French newspaper this week, they claimed actors, directors and producers of ethnic African and Asian origin, and those from France’s overseas territories, are essentially invisible. They mostly get insignificant roles, the group claimed, that would never allow them to be nominated for Cesars or other awards. Many of the signatories are from minority backgrounds.

Hermann Ebongue, secretary general of anti-discrimination group SOS Racisme, notes calls for more diversity in the industry are not new. Although this year’s Academy Awards faced similar criticism, he believes minority artists in the United States still have more opportunities to become stars than in France.

The #BlackCesars petition also points to what it calls a paradox of American film director Spike Lee becoming the first black head of the Cannes Film Festival’s jury in May.

The diversity criticism here comes amid a shake-up of the Cesar's management. Its board resigned en masse earlier this month, after film industry members accused it of being undemocratic and dysfunctional.

Women's rights activists protest against multiple nominations for Roman Polanski at the Cesar Awards ceremony, in Paris, France, Feb. 28, 2020.
Women's rights activists protest against multiple nominations for Roman Polanski at the Cesar Awards ceremony, in Paris, France, Feb. 28, 2020.

Meanwhile, another crisis is part of the backdrop of the awards ceremony. Franco-Polish film director Roman Polanski, whose movie An Officer and a Spy tops the list of nominations, faces accusations of rape and sexual harassment. He denies the accusations and said he would not attend following a storm of protest.

Some minority actors and directors have broken the glass ceiling here. Among them: film star Omar Sy, and director Ladj Ly, whose movie Les Miserables — set in France’s rough, multi-ethnic banlieues, or suburbs, — is another leading Cesar contender. Ly was also France’s first black film director to be nominated for an Oscar this year.

But activists say these stars remain the exceptions. Their box-office success, they say, proves French audiences also want more diversity onscreen.

Ebongue, of SOS Racisme, says real change will come when the industry as a whole signs on to petitions like #BlackCesars — and not just a minority of members.