The group that runs the Oscars is trying to become more diverse—but has a long way to go.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences welcomed a roster of new members last month, after getting rid of an exclusive membership cap that has restricted access in previous years.
As diversity has become a trendy word over the years, I hope that the movement to a more inclusive Academy membership is not just a fad. Now that change is inching forward, questions about the Academy’s inclusiveness will need to be addressed and revisited in the coming months and years—especially in light of the heavily disproportionate amount of women and people of color who have been left out of the Oscars in the past. To date, only four women have been nominated for Best Director, and only one of them—Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2008)—have won the award. Similarly, black, Latino, and Asian filmmakers and actors have largely been excluded from consideration in a number of categories, to much debate and little surprise.
The new roster includes 100 more people than the Academy usually admits, stacking up to 276 people who altogether stand in direct contrast to the existing voting body of the organization, which was revealed last year to be nearly 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male.
The new membership also disrupts a long-standing age gap— a measly 14 percent of Academy voting members were under 50, with a median age of 62. According to The Hollywood Reporter, of the 112 members with accessible birth date information, the median age of the new Academy members is 51.
Notable additions included several international filmmakers, people of color, and women. I’m excited to see Hollywood embracing writer/director Ava DuVernay, whose 2012 Sundance-hit Middle Of Nowhere, was the subject of Oscar-talk last year when it was predicted to be a possibility for Best Original Screenplay nomination, but was omitted from the final lineup. She was invited as both a writer and director, on the heels of the hugely successful TV premiere of her documentary Venus Vs, about tennis star Venus Williams’ fight for equal prize money at Wimbledon.
Other invitees include veteran French filmmaker Agnes Varda, Peeples director Tina Gordon-Chism, Grey’s Anatomy actress Sandra Oh, Girls creator Lena Dunham, and actresses Rosario Dawson, Kimberly Elise, Lucy Liu, and Paula Patton, among others. Commenting on the new membership, Academy CEO Dawn Hudson told THR: “We did not change our criteria at all. Yes, this year there is a tremendous amount of women, a tremendous amount of people of color, people from all walks of life. This year, we asked the branches to look at everybody who wasn’t in the Academy but who deserved to be.”
How this sudden change in race and gender-inclusion will impact the Academy, is yet to be seen, but the organization may have a long way to go before it can completely shed its reputation of exclusion, bolstered by the fact that many of its new invitees were more than “deserving” of nominations in the past. DuVernay aside, internationally praised filmmakers Raoul Peck (Lumumba) and Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger), have all directed critically acclaimed films in previous years and were not recognized for them. If these filmmakers accept the Academy’s invitations, we may end up seeing a shift—albeit small—in the films that are recognized, supported, and nominated for the country’s most high-profile film awards. In fact, it will be interesting to see whether McQueen and DuVernay’s upcoming films—including McQueen’s anticipated Twelve Years A Slave and DuVernay’s newly publicized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. drama Selma—will be considered for Oscars.
While many people could care less about the Academy’s latest effort, continual pressure on the organization could actually yield further transitions. To dismiss these awards and what they mean to the careers of those within the film industry, especially women and people of color, has always seemed too easy. You can rightly call the Oscars out-of-touch, outdated, and exclusionary, but that doesn’t take away from their financial importance and prestige. According to MoneyTalks News, many nominees and winners earn more than half of their box office revenue after a nomination, also known as the “Oscar bump.”
So instead of dismissing the issue, the Academy and film critics needs to continue digging into the importance of who the Oscars recognize, who they don’t, and why it’s not okay for the awards to marginalize women and people of color.
What this new roster can’t be is a one-time apology for the years of exclusion, a kind of redemption song to get back into the good graces of the non-male, non-white general public. A roster like this should be the starting point of change, not the end. With these new voices in the mix, hopefully that sentiment will prevail.