Oscars Diversity Crisis Sparks Academy Reform

This year’s all-white lineup of Oscar acting nominations has caused a number of film celebs to call out the apparent underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the Academy. Parading the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, some have also objected that a number of films featuring black actors or directors have been all but snubbed from nominations (Economist noted Straight Outta Compton, Creed, and Beasts of No Nation), pointing to a majority voting population of white males over sixty as the cause. Protesters also claim underrepresentation of women, and have demanded significant Academy reforms.

The relative absence of women and minorities on Academy nomination lists is a growing trend from last year, when the hashtag was originally coined for similar snubs on films like Selma. The Academy’s eighty-nine year history shows no better record. A 2012 L.A. Times study of the Academy’s earlier demographics found that under 4% of acting awards have gone to black actors, and that only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, is among the directing award winners for her film “The Hurt Locker.”

Some claim these statistics result from the Academy’s voting membership. Since the Academy’s first meeting in 1927, the body of members has remained largely white and male, and a rapid membership increase in the '90s only resulted in a slightly better ratio between white and minority members. As of 2004, that demographic was still near 93% white, 76% male, with an average age of 62.

The recent nominations have forefronted potential issues with this disparity, and sparked comments from a number of actors and filmmakers. Among the objectors, major movers include Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, and Spike Lee. AV Club reports that all three have called for a boycott of the upcoming ceremony in protest. Other actors like George Clooney and Mark Ruffalo have expressed similar frustrations.

The entertainers of SNL gave a biting satire in their recent “Screen Guild Awards” skit. And, as noted in a Polygon article, even the current Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs has spoken out via Twitter that she is “both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion” and that “it’s time for big changes.”

Meanwhile, some comments strike alternative notes. Rapper, and Straight Outta Compton producer, Ice Cube told US Weekly that, “We don’t do movies for the industry; we do movies for the fans. . . if [the industry gives] you a trophy or not. . . it’s nice but it’s not something you should dwell on.” British actor Michael Caine reflected from a voter’s perspective: “you can’t vote for an actor just because he’s black. . . You’ve got to give a good performance,” and encouraged black actors to have patience: “It took me years to get an Oscar.” Actress Charlotte Rampling, a fellow Brit, commented similarly, as well as saying that the uproar is “racist to whites.”

And for Entertainment Weekly, French actress Julie Delpy curtly redirected to women’s rights, saying, “I sometimes wish I were African American. . . people don’t bash them afterward. . . Nothing worse than being a woman in this business.” Both Rampling and Delpy later clarified, softening their initial approaches but still holding their respective stances.

In rapid response to the controversy, the Academy called an emergency meeting of its Board of Governors to decide upon methods of reforming the voter base. According to Variety, a number of changes are already underway towards a goal of doubling minority and women voters by 2020. Among the initial changes, three new seats have been added to the Board, as well as spots for young “future leaders” to sit in on committee meetings.

Also, qualifications for voting - formerly a lifetime privilege for members - have been radically changed. To vote now, members must be active in the film industry at least once in ten years, and will achieve lifetime voting only after thirty years of industry work. Members who do not fit these requirements are given an “emeritus” non-voting status. All of these qualifications apply retroactively to current members and may be expected to shift the demographic towards a new generation of filmmakers and actors.

Unfortunately, as Directors Guild of America President Paris Barclay emphasized in a statement Monday, the current outrage may miss the point if focused solely at the Academy; change in minority representation must start at the industry’s hiring process, not the awards ceremonies. An Economist study of Academy demographics relative to the industry and U.S. population found that minorities are largely underrepresented at the level of film schools and casting offices, and that, for the most part, “the Academy has largely judged what has been put in front of them.” Even in 2012, Academy leadership was aware of the white-dominated disparity within their membership, yet noted that alterations were difficult if the industry itself did not change. Paris Barclay’s recent statement echoes, “Only when those who control the pipeline decide to individually, or jointly, take concrete action will we see significant change.”

Though the Oscar ceremonies are quickly approaching, the film industry may be more interested in watching the results of the Academy’s reform in the upcoming months.