On June 29th, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made one of the biggest changes in its history, inviting nearly 700 new members in an attempt to diversify a membership that was increasingly unrepresentative of modern cinema and the modern world. It’s about damn time.
To put it lightly, the Academy have taken a few steps back in the last couple of years. After 12 Years A Slave won its Oscar, the next two Academy Awards ceremonies showed a systematic exclusion of both women and people of colour in the major categories. The controversy was the biggest topic surrounding the event, with host Chris Rock focusing in on the #OscarsSoWhite movement (and offending even more people along the way with some ill-advised jokes about Asian people).
This was something of a disappointing regression from 12 Years A Slave’s triumphant victory at the 86th Awards in 2014 – winning Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for Lupita Nyong’o (which made her both the first Kenyan and Mexican actress to win the award). 12 Years A Slave’s wins signalled the beginning of a shift away from whitewashing, as well as a move away from Best Picture winners with that classic Oscar Season Sheen (with The Revenant’s wins, this at least is arguably progressing). For the 87th Awards (2015), however, the presence of minorities was somewhat reduced. Selma received a Best Picture nod but only one other nomination (Best Original Song for John Legend and Common, who eventually won); most controversially, there was no Best Actor nod for David Oyelowo. And then the 88th Academy Awards went even further.
The 88th Academy Awards in 2016 only had two nominations for people from ethnic minorities. These were Alejandro González Iñárritu with his Best Director nomination for The Revenant, and Abęl Makkonen Tesfaye (aka The Weeknd) for his song ‘Earned It’ from the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack.
One troubling argument that came out in response to the #OscarsSoWhite movement was that the significant films featuring people of colour were simply excluded for not being as “deserving” as those nominated. It wasn’t racism, many people argued; those films and performances just weren’t as good. Tough luck, try again next year. This argument is reductive in the same fashion that the ‘All Lives Matter’ argument is – both are surprisingly defensive and willing to argue the fact that there isn’t a problem. They’re like the person proudly announcing that they just don’t see race.
But the reality is that there is a problem. The subjective nature of quality and the fact that this is a selection of films chosen by a large group of people rather than an algorithm proves how vital personal taste is in determining nominations. And when you take taste into account, you inevitably take a bit of each voter’s identity with you as well. It’s reductive to say a 70-year-old white guy will automatically prefer films about other 70-year-old white guys, but equally our identity and cultural heritage informs our taste in so many ways. Our race, our gender and our sexuality all give us different reference points and routes through our shared history of cinema, and that’s something worth embracing. The problem is when the vast majority of your voters are walking the same path. The Atlantic’s 2014 report that 94% of the Academy voters were white, and most of these voters were 63 year old men speaks for itself.
Creed’s only nomination is the most pointed example of this systemic exclusion. Sylvester Stallone gained the only nomination, for Best Supporting Actor. While it is not a nomination without merit, there is equal value in the lead performance of Michael B. Jordan and the direction by Ryan Coogler. You have to feel that the more diverse Academy committee promised by these changes would have been more likely to recognise that. Straight Outta Compton, despite the buzz and critical praise surrounding it, was all but excluded from the proceedings. It received one nomination as well. Guess who that was for? The four-strong, all-white writing team. It stands to reason that films such as these, which portray moments that are extremely personal to African Americans, would have found themselves in the discussion as well, if the Academy had some kind of balance between ethnicity and gender in its voters.
When there’s no voice at all for people from every other demographic, the vote is bound to be skewed – as people from different backgrounds will likely find greater significance, beauty or entertainment in different things. While the problem does lie with Hollywood as a whole (which needs a fundamental change at this point), the percentage of voters in the Academy was the more direct problem with the ‘whiteout’ of the Oscars.
Hollywood is running the risk of appearing outdated, both in the way studios operate (executives have been caught exchanging emails containing ‘racially insensitive remarks’); and in the way that it awards its peers – celebrating everything typical about Hollywood, instead of anything special. By comparison, television is strides ahead of Hollywood in its diversity of cast and creator. Television is currently a space where artists can make often ignored voices heard, and through shows such as Master of None, Black-ish, Broad City, Orange is the New Black and more, creators are using popular formats to present fundamental inequalities in the US. With the 88th Academy Awards, Hollywood appeared worryingly content to show that ‘everything is fine’.
Thankfully, the #OscarsSoWhite movement appeared to be some kind of wake up call, and has been directly addressed – the president of the Academy has followed through on her promise in a big way, inviting 683 new members (including a range of black figures in Hollywood, from Idris Elba to the Wayans brothers). It’s a good start, given the inherent whiteness and masculinity of Hollywood, but not an absolute solution.
Of the new people invited, according to the Oscars website, 46% are women and 41% are from minorities – but when included with previous members of the Academy, the shift is small. Even if all the new invitees accept, the shift in diversity in members will be an increase of 2% and 3% for women and minorities respectively. Old white males still dominate the bulk of the membership, and the averages remain roughly the same (and don’t even get me started on the voting process).
However, it is difficult not to applaud the Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs for her efforts to diversify the Academy’s membership. Not only have they recognized the need for more women and American minorities, but also for international filmmakers – over 283 members from 59 different countries have been invited too. One can only hope, then, that this is the beginning of an upward trend for the Academy. If that much is true and minorities are given more of a chance to have their say, it stands to reason that productions like Selma and Straight Outta Compton will be given their due time in the spotlight.