Most years I look forward to the Oscar nominations. I like to pick through them, noting where I agreed and disagreed. The past several years I wrote about them. Last year I didn’t due to other commitments, but this year I was looking forward to again going through the Academy’s picks. Last year the Academy did not give a single Oscar nomination to a non-white actor. I told my friends there was no way that would happen again, especially after the 2015 backlash and the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. So when nominations came out I was simply stunned, and I knew instantly that I could not write a regular column on who was picked and who wasn’t. No, it wasn’t like last year; it was even worse. Last year director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo were snubbed for Selma, but at least the film received a Best Picture nomination. This year not only were non-whites shut out of the acting categories again but no film with minorities as leads was nominated for the big prize. “Film studio heads were 94 percent white and 100 percent male.”
“Maybe there just weren’t any deserving candidates?” one might ask. Neither I nor, I believe, most rational people would argue for a nominations quota. Any film or performance should stand on its own merits. The thing is, in 2015 there were worthy candidates. Will Smith would have been a great Best Actor pick for Concussion as would Idris Elba as Supporting Actor for Beasts of No Nation. Straight Outta Compton received good reviews, was a box office hit, and was a Producers Guild of America Best Picture nominee, generally a reliable Oscar Best Picture bellwether, but not this time. Sylvester Stallone deserved his Supporting Actor nomination for Creed, but to have him nominated and not director Ryan Coogler, lead actor Michael B. Jordan, or the film itself, is unsettling.
Writing this column is difficult because I want to celebrate the Oscars, not bury them. At its best, the Oscars are the Super Bowl of movies. Even when those I want to win do not, as is often the case, having the argument is fun. Even in this age, the Oscars matter. In the media and in film ads, you see “Academy Award Winner” or “Nominee” before a name. For the winners, the Oscars are prestige and often new opportunities. That’s why you see studios fight so hard to get them.
What’s especially painful is that the Oscars seemed to be taking a step backward. It was not too long ago that Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won Best Actor and Actress at the same Oscars. It was the same ceremony where Sidney Poitier won a lifetime achievement award (back when that was done on the main show). To many this represented that maybe Hollywood, which has often lagged behind in social change, was making progress. Actors of all races who delivered strong performances had a shot at the Oscar. Or so I thought. Now one year without minority nominees may be an anomaly, but two is a problem.
To some the whole idea of diversity seems like political correctness run amok. But what is the alternative? The perception, as portrayed by a recent SNL skit, that the Oscars will honor the best white performances of the year? Or maybe that the Oscars will become, as this year’s host Chris Rock joked, “the white BET Awards.” The Oscars risk being seen as not only unfair, but, eventually, irrelevant. Hollywood, more than any industry, should understand that appearances matter.
Diversity benefits the Oscars in substance as well as perception. Yes, studios too often stick with the tried and true. But films are more interesting when they include a wide spectrum of perspectives. To get that, you need a wide spectrum of people. Same goes for the Oscars. A greater inclusion of minorities would only strengthen the institution.
There’s no foolproof way to solve the problem, in part because the Academy voters and their votes are all secret. We know how many members are in each branch, but until the past few years we did not know much else. In 2012 the LA Times investigated and found that Academy voters were overwhelmingly older, white and male. The current Academy President, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, and her team have made great efforts to bring in younger, more diverse members. By her own admission though, those efforts have not been enough.
So what would help fix the problem? Last year I proposed making the voting rules for all categories similar to those for Best Picture. If there are more than five candidates with strong support, have more nominees. There’s nothing magic about five. I still hope the Academy makes this change, but not now. This is the right solution for a different problem. Let’s say the Academy made this change now in light of the current controversy. Then next year there are seven Best Actor nominees, with two minorities. Those two actors would be perceived as only selected due to expanding the number of nominees. Critics would say that the Academy lowered its standards. The assumption would be a flawed one, because we would not know the vote totals, but would still be prevalent. The Academy should revisit this idea later when the focus shifts to other issues.
Another solution goes back to the famous quote by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Why not make the Academy’s voting membership, and their votes, completely public? Right now we are only speculating as to why minorities were excluded this year. If we knew who voted for whom, then the media and the general public could understand who did not vote for any minority candidates and could ask them why. Voting in government elections is a right, and, as such, should be secret. Voting for the Oscars is a privilege that must be earned, in an industry made to entertain the public. Making these votes public would not be any invasion of privacy. If you are voting as a privilege, then you should expect to be held accountable for your vote. This year reports are that many voters did not even see Straight Outta Compton. Of course, that’s only speculation. If votes were public, then voters could be asked if they saw all of the contenders.
Another solution would be to follow the lead of the Baseball Hall of Fame, which changed their bylaws to require that voters have covered baseball within the past ten years. Academy members have traditionally had lifetime voting privileges. Even if someone had been retired for 20 years and is currently no more involved in filmmaking than I am, he could still vote. In effect, only God could revoke voting rights. So however much the Academy recruited more diverse members, changing the demographics to make them more reflect America would prove difficult.
Thankfully, the Academy did address voting privileges, and, while it did not go as far as I would have hoped, it is still a huge step in the right direction. The Academy unveiled a plan to double the number of women and diverse members by 2020. It also limits voting rights for ten years. Afterwards the membership can only be renewed if the person has been “active in motion pictures during that decade.” After three ten year terms, or if the person has been nominated for an Oscar, then voting rights become permanent.
Critics of this new policy have described this policy as ageist, but that seems misguided. Clint Eastwood, Dick Van Dyke, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Moreno, Cicely Tyson and Kirk Douglas can all still vote. So can anyone of any age who either is still working in the industry or has a 30+ year history of doing so. Yes meeting that standard is difficult, but isn’t it supposed to be? The Academy proclaims itself an elite institution, so that means meeting high standards to get in, and should also mean meeting high standards to stay in. The one criticism that has some merit is that the “active in motion pictures” definition should be tweaked to include those that are teaching, or that have moved to television. The line between film and TV has all but disappeared, and teaching the next generation, to me, means you are still active. Hopefully the Academy will make what should be a simple fix.
Of course, as so many have noted, the Academy’s nominations are symptoms of a much larger problem. Viola Davis, in her moving Emmy acceptance speech said, “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.” That sentiment can be expanded to cover opportunities in movies for women, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, LGBT, and other historic minorities. You can’t even be considered for an Oscar nomination if there’s little opportunity. Later Davis said, “You can change the Academy, but if there are no black films being produced, what is there to vote for?”
A 2015 report by UCLA’s Ralph Bunche Center found that “although minorities posted small to modest gains in several Hollywood employment areas since the last report, they are underrepresented on every front.” That includes film leads, film directors and film writers. Why is this the case? One answer may come from another part of that report:
“Film studio senior management was 92 percent white and 83 percent male.”
“Film studio unit heads were 96 percent white and 61 percent male.”
While there may not be overt racism here, it is only human nature that people often give opportunities to people most like themselves. White, male decisionmakers greenlight projects with white, male talent.
No one can force studios to have more diverse management, or to approve more diverse projects. Again though, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Traditional media, social media, and activists can all be vigilant in tracking studio management and asking if they are giving opportunities to diverse talent. Spike Lee recently cited the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” which requires a team to interview at least one minority candidate for every head coach opening. Can’t a studio be asked if, for any management vacancy, a minority candidate was interviewed? Is your studio doing anything to develop minority talent, both as management and as filmmakers?
On the grassroots level, many are not waiting for the studios. Organizations such as DC’s own Women in Film and Video are developing young, diverse talent and trying to increase opportunities. My hope is that the Academy, beyond changing the voting rules, can follow the lead of these grassroots groups and push Hollywood in a new direction. Then one day the Oscars can be part of the solution and not just the symptom of the problem.
February 1, 2016
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