Oscars Academy invites more women and minorities to join, but is that enough to change the culture?
It’s the largest, most diverse class ever invited by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but critics say the movie industry itself needs to effect deeper changes if it wants to avoid more charges of prejudice
Box office aside, for Hollywood, this was a blockbuster week.
On Wednesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) announced it had invited a record 683 filmmakers, actors and craftspeople to join the organisation.
It was the largest, most diverse class ever inducted by the Academy: 46 per cent were women and 41 per cent were minorities. If all accept, the percentage of female members and black members will rise to 27 per cent (up 2 points) and 11 per cent (up 3 points) respectively.
The induction earned a cheer from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). “The progress that is being made by AMPAS is certainly going in a very positive direction, with more that can be done,” said Roslyn M. Brock, chairman of the NAACP National Board of Directors in a statement. She added: “The NAACP continues to believe that the “O” in Oscar should stand for opportunity.”
While the move was historic, it’s unclear whether the shift will be sizable enough to avoid an #OscarsSoWhite threepeat.
Though new faces abound in the actors branch, from Idris Elba to Eva Mendes, changes may be most acutely felt in the directing branch.
Previously, just 35 women were among the 395 directors, but the Academy has added 53 women, according to figures confirmed by the Academy. Thirty-nine male directors were also added.
Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of the website Women and Hollywood, calls the branch overhaul a deliberate move by the Academy to catch up. “Only four women in the history of the Academy have been nominated for best director,” says Silverstein. (Kathryn Bigelow is the only one who won, for The Hurt Locker.) “People don’t get how this filters down into the whole industry.”
The shift is “very significant, because that goes against what the industry norms are”, says Pete Hammond, awards columnist for the industry website Deadline.com.
How could this affect the Oscar race? Director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, The Invitation), one of the Academy’s new inductees, noted how much of nominations consideration comes down to opportunity. Most women and minority directors find work in independent films, which have a harder time securing the kind of financing that affords Oscar campaigns.
“That’s where I’m hopeful that my individual voice could matter,” she says. “Because I’d hope to be calling attention to a great film that maybe just doesn’t have the resources to get in front of every single member.”
Those new voices in the conversation are crucial, says Silverstein, pointing to how intense female-led dramas such as 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, which starred Tilda Swinton as the mother of a mass shooter, can fizzle quickly while male-driven fare such as Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Revenant tends to thrive.
“There’s still a double standard about content that has female protagonists,” she says. “What I want to see is the possibilities of some of these movies staying in the Oscar conversations for longer.”
Still, there’s a long way to go. Even this historic class “barely makes a dent” in the overall membership, awards columnist Scott Feinberg notes in The Hollywood Reporter. “Ultimately, we still come back to the same problem: the tail does not wag the dog. The Academy, try as it might, cannot change the industry,” he writes. “The industry from which the Academy chooses its members, nominees and winners still needs to provide it with a greater variety of worthy options.”
After the announcement, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said the group’s goal of doubling women and black members is achievable.
“We’re going to just keep going,” she says. “When you set a goal, you really want to set a high one. Otherwise, what’s the point? This is a process we’re continuing until 2020. And we won’t stop then, either.”
Hammond acknowledges the Academy will face “a real media problem” if a whiteout occurs a third time, particularly with films on the horizon such as Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation and Cannes Film Festival hit Loving.
But ultimately, he says, the Academy has no control over how its members vote. “It’s not done by committee. When it comes time to choose, it’s an individual vote like a presidential election.”