by TRIP SLAYMAKER ’18
The Hollywood movie industry has always had a special talent for congratulating itself. A pretty good example of this phenomenon comes by way of a small but enormously wealthy organization known as AMPAS, or, more commonly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. If you weren’t aware, the Academy is the organization behind the Oscars, and has been for nearly ninety years.
When the annual Oscar ceremony rolls around, it brings that ninety-year record with it in spirit. We feel the weight of its collected prestige, the butterflies of its nominees, and of course, that slight patina of narcissism that makes the whole thing feel a little overblown. Since last week, the organization has been struggling to cope with public outcry.
When the Academy announced its nominees for the 2016 ceremony, the results showed a distinct and obvious lack of diversity. In other words, everyone was white. The firestorm that followed is pretty much unparalleled in Oscar history. There’s never been anything quite as unflattering to the organization.
Generally when filmmakers feel neglected, snubbed, or otherwise disrespected by the nominations, there is grumbling and grappling, but eventually the image of the Academy returns to the forefront as that of a sturdy and unyielding establishment whose decisions can be disappointing, but never overridden.
But on this scale? The snubbing of people of color by the Academy voting pool caused explosive blowback within the very hour those nominees were announced. Open letters, boycotting, and accusations of racism on the part of the Academy swirled across the Internet and media. The tumult continued unchanged until an announcement from Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs discussed plans for a change to the voting system, and promised that “the Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up.” At that announcement, much of the outrage caused by the nominations was quelled—even the notoriously outspoken Spike Lee, director of “Chi-Raq,” made a statement expressing his respect for the Oscar changes. The only question remaining is whether or not these changes will work as they are meant to.
Before we can understand the changes that are being made, we need to delve a little deeper into the workings of the Academy as they stood before now. There are around 600 members of the voting pool that chooses the movie nominees each year. Their names are kept secret for the most part, but this is not to say that they would not be recognized: among the known members are actors with exceptional track records like Annette Bening and Tom Hanks in the acting branch: Kathryn Bigelow and Michael Mann reside in the director’s branch. There are Board Governors for each category of filmmaking in the Academy. A seat on the Academy is by invitation only. But because the Academy membership has been a lifelong commitment, many of the members are no longer active filmmakers. This means that the voting pool never was refreshed. Next to no new filmmakers or actors were admitted, and the members that were no longer active simply stagnated, voting each year without much context for what the actual makeup of the film world might be.
As you may have guessed, this was not a very diverse voting pool. In fact, according to a survey published by the Los Angeles Times in 2014, the voters were 94% white, 77% men, with an average age of 63.
When the film industry wishes to make an Oscar winning film, they choose from a list of hugely famous, albeit hugely talented actors. Think of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Meryl Streep (who has been nominated a whopping 19 times.) These actors are shoe-ins because they are talented people, renowned in their class, but also, regrettably, because they are white. There is no way around the fact—Hollywood filmmakers are attempting to appeal to the racial background of the majority of the people who do the voting. The result is that films like “Beasts of No Nation,” “Chi-raq” and “Straight Outta Compton,” don’t get nearly as much attention at the Oscars. Organizations like SAG, on the other hand, had a diverse list of actors on their list of nominees.
What this means for the Academy members is that they are choosing to nominate the films that are made with them in mind—white actors for white voters. Some feel that this action of seeing only the films that appeal to your own background is not racist at all: that Academy voters should not be held responsible for identifying most firmly with films that complement their own racial area of understanding and comfort. But while the American movie going public may have a long way to go on crossing traditional lines of race and category in the movies they choose to see, an Academy voter has no excuse. If they are employed to be the most knowledgeable and respected minds in the motion picture industry, then it is their responsibility and, one would hope, pleasure to be exploring all facets and areas of film—no matter the race, background or gender of the people who made them.
So, the Academy thought that their best shot at counteracting the problem of a racial imbalance was to shake up the voting pool more often. It would have been seen as disrespectful to the ranks of the old voters if anyone were to be actually fired immediately, and the Academy is careful not to burn bridges needlessly.
Academy voters will, as of 2017’s Oscars, remain voting members for only ten years before a reapplication to the Academy voting pool. This allows for a much more refreshed group of people tasked with selecting the nominated films. A voting pool which can be full of more diverse voters, who come from the film backgrounds that so often go unrepresented at the awards.
But the Academy is just one organization—and all of Hollywood is the problem. The reason that Cheryl Boone Isaacs said that she wanted the Academy to “lead” the film world is because that is more directly linked to the issues of the industry. Leading roles for non-white actors in Hollywood are hard to come by in any genre, let alone the traditionally whiter Oscar films. When these actors are being considered, their white counterparts are the ones who are more likely to be selected for an Oscar-bait type movie. This points to the fact that these seemingly biased nominations are a symptom of a more universal industry bias. There are fewer non-white nominations annually because there are fewer roles for people of color.
So if Hollywood’s gravitation toward whiteness is the true overarching problem at hand, does that make what the Academy is doing a waste of time? Is this overhaul simply a change of subject thrown up by the Academy to distract from the real issue? Perhaps it is. But it isn’t a waste of time by any stretch of the imagination. What the Academy is doing is important, and could help to lead the way to a better movie industry.
If the voting component of the Academy is becoming more diverse, there is certainly a chance that the film world will start to take the hint, and begin change their casting policies to reflect and appeal to the profiles of the new Academy rather than the old one. Even if the possibility of any change in the industry through the Academy is slim, it has to be worth a try.
These Oscars on February 28 could be the last of a long line of flawed awards ceremonies. It might be that the Academy is moving towards that which it could always have grown to become- a more accurate and progressive meter by which to judge a year’s greatest movies and their accomplishments. The great tragedy is that it took this upset of an entirely white year of nominations to get us closer to where we ought to be in mainsream film representation. With any luckat all, in a few years’ time we will start to see that when the Oscars are for everyone, then everyone can be recognized as great.