will the oscar diversity changes actually work?

On Friday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced sweeping changes in order to increase diversity among its voting members. We explore those changes, and what they actually mean when it comes to diversity in Hollywood.

by Emily Manning
Jan 25 2016, 8:30pm

Cheryl Boone Isaacs

"Shame is a helluva motivator," Ava DuVernay tweeted on Friday.

The Selma director had just received an email from the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The prior evening, the governing body voted unanimously to enact a series of aggressive policy changes in pursuit of doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.

The Board's announcement arrived just a week after the 2016 Oscar nominations were unveiled, and with them, the sobering fact that not a single actor of color had been nominated for the second year in a row. Immediately, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was reinvigorated on social media. Director Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett Smith both added their voices on Instagram and Facebook, respectively. Will Smith later confirmed he'd join his wife in her boycott of the ceremony.

"The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up," Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs -- who noted she was "heartbroken and frustrated" by the nominations in a lengthy statement following the backlash -- said in a press release outlining the Board's agreed-upon changes. "These new measures regarding governance and voting will have an immediate impact and begin the process of significantly changing our membership composition." Though the Academy does not publicly disclose its full membership, its official website states there are presently over 7,000 members. An extensive LA Times report published in 2012 sampled over 5,000 members; the paper found that at that time, the Academy was 94% white, 77% male, 86% age 50 or older, resulting in a median age of 62. And you wonder why Straight Outta Compton didn't make the cut.

Here's the plan: firstly, the Academy is switching up its traditional member acquisition process in which a current members sponsor a potential new member, before each candidate is reviewed first by one of 17 Branch Executive Committee (acting branch, directing branch, you get the gist) and finally, by the Board of Governors. That same LA Times report found that of the then 43 Board of Governors members, only six were female and Boone Isaacs was the only person of color.

Since that new membership process is basically identical to how country clubs operate, the Academy plans to establish three new seats on the Board of Governors and supplement the existing process "by launching an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity." Beginning later this year, each new member's voting status will last 10 years. Voting status will be renewed if that new member has been active in motion pictures during that decade. These people are "active" members. After three ten-year terms, members will receive lifetime voting rights (which will also be conferred upon a member if they've won or been nominated for an Academy Award).

Another thing: the Board plans to apply these standards retroactively to the Academy's current members. If a member hasn't worked on a film in three decades after gaining membership, they'll effectively be suspended from voting -- unless they happen to snag an Oscar nomination themselves.

DuVernay called the decision, "One good step in a long, complicated journey for people of color + women artists." In a series of tweets, the director explained how the widespread backlash helped push this change forward: "It's the fact that EVERYONE ELSE thinks you're wrong. Fix it mode kicks in. Marginalized artists have advocated for Academy change for DECADES. Actual campaigns. Calls voiced FROM THE STAGE. Deaf ears. Closed minds. Whether it's shame, true feelings, or being dragged kicking + screaming, just get it done."

But according to The Hollywood Reporter -- which published a collection of member reactions on Saturday -- many see the flipside of DuVernay's point. Yes, media and public backlash is responsible for bringing about such rapid and substantive changes, but these changes unfairly scapegoats older members. Or, as director's branch member Sam Weisman said, "It seems like this is a hastily put-together reaction to a firestorm."

Some members, including 89-year-old executives branch member Marcia Nasatir (who, incidentally, raved about trans actress Mya Taylor's performance in Sean Baker's indie hit Tangerine to the paper last month) expressed technical concerns in the wake of new policies: "It sometimes takes 10 years to get a movie made when you work on it as a producer, so what does this mean for producers?" But others questioned the ethics of the decision itself.

"I go to the Academy a lot and there are some people there that shouldn't be voting — they're very elderly and they don't look as if they can really judge what's in today's market, so in that way it has some merit," agent Leigh Castle weighed in. "But there are other people that are 90 years old or whatever and they're perfectly vibrant and very much with it… They have earned the privilege of being in the Academy through their work and just because they're no longer active doesn't mean that they can't be a good judge of what they're looking at."

"What makes anyone think that having these additional members will change anything?" an unnamed member of the PR branch asked. "The assumption is that minorities vote for minority projects and white members don't. I've never heard anything so absurd and, yes, racist." Another unnamed "longtime member" took a more strongly worded stance: "I have news for you: older people who lived through the struggles for civil rights are way more sensitive to minority issues than young people who don't understand what it was all about in the first place," adding, "It's f—ing knee-jerk liberalism without taking into consideration what is fair."

While the Academy's efforts to make its voting population more diverse -- especially the shift from nepotistic new member processes -- are laudable, there is merit to the backlash to the backlash. Though white, elderly members still make up a disproportionate chunk of the Academy, stripping them of voting rights isn't a viable solution to dismantling the institutionalized discrimination that shapes much of the larger industry. Yes, there were many film industry professionals of color -- not just actors -- who should have been recognized for their achievements this year. But a much larger problem remains: 93.6% of features released in 2013 and 2014 were directed by men. Only 11% of those films were helmed by non-white people. Viola Davis said it best: "The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there."

An open-minded voting membership might be more likely to recognize the merit of diverse performances and projects, but not if there still aren't any to vote on. Enacting sweeping, rapid changes in studio hiring, film financing, and casting policies is far more likely to result in the production of top quality, diverse films. 


Text Emily Manning
Photography Paul Buck via EPA

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