Oscars diversity pledge will take time to yield results, observers say

Academy agrees to double female and minority membership by 2020, after criticism of all-white nominee list for acting honours – criticism that this year’s Oscars ceremony host Chris Rock will mine for laughs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 January, 2016, 1:08pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 January, 2016, 3:29pm

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Oscars has launched a landmark campaign to diversify the ranks of Oscars voters who decide which actors, movies and filmmakers earn recognition, but Hollywood’s highest honours may remain a predominantly white affair for some time to come.

Amid an outcry against a field of Oscar-nominated performers lacking a single black person for a second straight year, the academy announced a sweeping affirmative action programme on Friday, pledging to double female and minority membership by 2020.

READ MORE: Critics blame all-white Oscar nominees list on studio heads’ conservatism

Despite the controversy, black comedian Chris Rock will not step away from the high-profile job of hosting this year’s awards, said the show’s producer, Reginald Hudlin. He told Entertainment Tonight at an NAACP Image Awards luncheon the comedian has scrapped material he prepared for the show.

“As things got a little provocative and exciting, he said, ‘I’m throwing out the show I wrote and writing a new show,’” said Hudlin.

“You should expect [#OscarsSoWhite jokes],” he said, adding: “And, yes, the Academy is ready for him to do that.”

READ MORE: ‘I don’t think about it’: Robert Redford addresses diversity in film at Sundance

The largely white, male, middle-aged make-up of the 6,000-plus film industry professionals who belong to the academy has long been cited as a barrier to racial and sexual equality at the Oscars.

“It’s unprecedented for the academy to make this kind of drastic overhaul,” says Tom O’Neil, editor of the awards-tracking website Gold Derby. “It’s a very dramatic announcement and a very welcome breakthrough.”

READ MORE: ‘Whiteout’ Oscars boycott prompts Academy pledge to double women and minority members by 2020

The changes, unanimously approved on Thursday night by the academy’s governing board, include a programme to “identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity”, and to strip some older members of voting privileges.

Under the new rules, lifetime voting rights would be conferred only on those academy members who remain active in the film industry over the course of three 10-year terms or who have won or been nominated for an Oscar.

READ MORE: Black star and director call for boycott of ‘lily white’ Oscars as outrage grows over nominees

Will Smith, director Spike Lee and a handful of others have vowed to stay away from the February 28 awards. They have given no indication that they plan to call off their Oscar boycott.

Studio Warner Bros issued a statement within hours embracing the Oscar announcement, and Kevin Tsujihara, chairman of the Time Warner-owned studio, adds: “There is more we must and will do.”

None of the measures will affect voting for this year’s Oscars – a contest whose dearth of racial diversity led to the revival of the trending Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite from 2015.

April Reign, an African-American activist who started the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, welcomes the changes but is still calling on viewers to boycott the Oscars.

“The academy can only nominate films that are made, and so the onus has to be put on Hollywood studio heads to make more films that represent the beauty and diversity and the nuance of all of America,” Reign says.

Longer-term change faces a deeply entrenched white, male-dominated system of studios, talent agencies and production companies that have been slow to welcome minorities in lead acting roles or as directors and screenwriters. Women have long faced similar impediments.

“The Oscar awards are the cosmetics of the industry. The infrastructure is the problem,” says Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.

On Saturday, Oscar-winning director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, speaking as a member of a panel of producers nominated for awards by the Producers Guild of America, called the new academy rules “a great step” towards more diversity.

The Mexican filmmaker, director of last year’s best film Oscar winner Birdman and this year’s nominee The Revenant, and others on the panel agreed producers need to do more at the start of a film’s development, in casting for instance, to achieve more cultural balance in film.