It’s not all about Michael B. Jordan and the Wayans brothers. It is, but it isn’t. African Americans are not the only 2016 invitees cutting an impressive swathe through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ old-white-male oligarchy. Of the record-breaking 683 new recruits, 46% are female and 41% non-white, leaving the “Class of 2016” with only 13% white men – which is incredibly impressive, and in itself severe enough a change from the past 88 years to start redressing the balance of power. For some (largely the types to complain all over the internet about misandry and black conspiracies), this screams tokenism. But looking across the board and ignoring the headline-grabbing statistics simply proves that the grand, positive changes brought – or at least started – by this invite list go much further than mere image.
For a start, the Academy have invited an impressive number of filmmakers working exclusively or almost exclusively in animation. Specifically, two Casting Directors, two Designers, two Editors, two Writers and, the rarest catch of all, a Cinematographer. That’s right: someone whose lasting contribution to the fundamental technology of the moving image is to artificially replicate it. Think that sounds stupid? You clearly weren’t watching Kim White’s work on Toy Story 3 and the game changing Inside Out. This woman gets lighting like few others – and now she’ll be helping to shape the Best Cinematography nominations list each year.
In fact, even the invitation of animation Casting Directors is a recent phenomenon: in 2011, 2012 and 2013 the only invitees from the world of animation were, well, animators. Only in the past three years have AMPAS – bolstered, perhaps, by increasing calls to recognise mo-cap and vocal performances – started inviting the people that fill the supporting casts. It goes without saying that an assortment of voices is of exactly the same importance as an assortment of extras and bit-part actors for a live-action movie. Similarly, the invitation of animators into the Academy’s Editing branch is a nice acknowledgment that the “Short Films and Animation” branch need no longer be considered a ghetto for those working outside the “serious”, more Best Picture-friendly realm of live action.
And speaking of the Shorts & Animation branch, it has invited a staggering 88 new members this year – up from 26 last year, 27 in 2014 and fewer than 20 in each year before that. What we’re seeing is not just an ethnic tokenism set up in direct and panicked response to two years of #OscarsSoWhite, but a widespread effort to truly include more types of people from across the film world. Animation accounts for such a great percentage of cinema releases (and, in Hollywood, an even greater percentage of box-office takings) that – at the risk of sounding foolish or, worse, deliberately satirical – the rise in animator inclusion here is truly on a par with and a reflection of the Academy’s newfound commitment to wider social diversity.
The idea of redressing old imbalances becomes even more focused when we look at the new invitees’ countries of origin. As many have noticed, it is heartening to see so many world legends newly stuffed into the Directors’ branch – Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Cristian Mungiu, Ken Loach, Park Chan-wook, Lynne Ramsay, to name only a few – but look across the other branches and it’s clear that this is not merely cultivated posturing. AMPAS have not just gone for bigger names from world cinema, but their editors too. And designers. And cinematographers. Alongside new Directing invitee Nuri Bilge Ceylan, they have his DoP Gökhan Tiryaki. Having invited Wong Kar-wai in 2012, we’ve now got his regular composer, Shigeru Umebayashi – a man who, significantly and like many here, has done next to nothing in America. Manon Rasmussen, a Danish costume designer, is one of the most sought-after costume designers in his home country without having ever worked outside its industry. Unlike previous years, where the majority of international invitees have either worked on a recent nominee or have more broadly established themselves in US filmmaking, the 283 new international members of 2016 have been genuinely cherry-picked as the best from around the globe; a list of insiders’ favourites, perhaps.
But it’s not just long-established arthouse favourites; the Academy are also showing they can look forward in genuinely surprising and exciting ways. The invitation of Lesli Linka Glatter speaks to this; she has directed one feature film, in 1995, and a short a decade before that (which was actually nominated for an Oscar), so on the face of it seems about as established as fellow Directing invitee Ana Lily Amirpour. Yet Glatter’s CV is as enviable as it gets, having helped shape the modern television canon with classic episodes of Twin Peaks, Freaks and Geeks, The West Wing and House, as well as arguably Mad Men’s most popular 42 minutes, ‘Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency’. It is still unclear how much AMPAS can, or should, continue to work with television and its artistic “golden age”, but by inviting a woman with, yes, only two cinematic credits but who continues to define the world of screen entertainment by popping up to direct everything from The Walking Dead to Justified, Masters of Sex to Homeland, the Academy board again shows it is willing to really think outside the box in terms of remaining relevant and, dare we say it, return to its one-time position as pop-culture authority.
And push forward it does, by really latching onto the zeitgeist. Inherently, relatively few of the of-the-moment invitees will become prestigious authorities on filmmaking, or even remain relevant in five years, but it’s good to see the Academy finally embracing this. That is to say: at the same time as pledging to freeze out older members who haven’t contributed anything of note for years, the board are making an equally intelligent and revolutionary statement by bringing in a number of potential flashes in the pan. Within the Acting branch, for instance, Dakota Johnson and John Boyega have already courted eyerolls though, of course, are just as likely to become major talents as they are footnotes. It is a gamble for the Academy, but one worth taking. Equally heartening are the gambles being taken on female directors, in the form of current one-hitters Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child) and the aforementioned Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night), as well as Wajdja‘s Haifaa al-Mansour, the first female Saudi filmmaker. As with those who seem to have been invited because they could well get near a nomination in the next six-ish months (Kate Beckinsale, Chadwick Boseman, Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou and, most notably, Nate Parker, whose CV would seem lacking were it not for the imminent release of awards favourite Birth of a Nation), the randomly-placed up-and-comers on this list would appear to be Academy future-proofing – which again is important, as it shows the organisation to be actually investing in cutting-edge filmmaking talent rather than just reacting to it as in previous years.
This, in fact, is what it comes down to: the Academy are no longer content to simply react, as their membership rules have always forced them to do. The three rules are as follows: prospective members must have had at least three screen credits, on films that “reflect the high standards of the Academy”; alternatively they could have been nominated for an Oscar, thus automatically making them Academy-worthy; or they must have, in “the judgment of the committee, otherwise achieved unique distinction, earned special merit or made an outstanding contribution” in their field. In 2016, for the first time, all three of these rules are being widely reshaped – or at least, the AMPAS board and its various committees have become happier to invoke rule #3, which allows them to essentially sidestep the other two. In so doing, membership can finally break its cycle and, so liberated, can start defining the cultural conversation again. If it’s been white people voting for white people for years, and white people therefore being employed for more films to be voted upon by the same white people (some of whom were invited to vote for these things because they’d themselves been nominated), then how is change supposed to occur? We’re speaking broadly, but this isn’t so inaccurate – right down to the cognitive bias that has, yes, prevented films like Creed and Straight Outta Compton receiving more nods (going back to film history’s most famous “black film” Oscars snub, Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing). At the very least, by allowing more voters in who haven’t necessarily been in the still-rather-stultifying “Oscar-bait” milieu (this includes white-male invitees, especially many of the directors), the net can be cast wider in general. Regardless of ethnicity or gender, the simple fact is that the wide variety of professional and social backgrounds catered for in the 2016 invitations list – and that should expand even further in the next few years – will allow for a less homogeneous range of films in the Academy’s annual Awards.
The final question, then, is: why does it matter whether the Oscars are more or less diverse? Who could possibly care? What bearing do they have on society? And our answer is: exactly. As they stand currently, the Oscars have exactly as much influence on culture as they deserve, which is very little.