Last week, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs responded to criticisms that the Oscar nominations lack diversity.
While she stated she would love to see more cultural diversity among nominees, she said flatly:
There is not one central body or group of people that sit around the table and come up with nominations. It really is a peer-to-peer process.
The question more of us should be asking is, who are these peers?
A 2012 Los Angeles Times study found that the voting body of the Academy was nearly 94 percent white and 77 percent male, with a median age of roughly 62. Perhaps the first step to seeing more nominations for women and people of color is for diversity to be reflected among the Academy itself, but the Academy has made it even more difficult in recent years to become a qualifying member.
The current guidelines are weighted towards people that already have their foot in the door, and they don’t allow for diversity to occur at the rate needed to influence significant change.
Generally, a candidate would have to be a fairly recent Oscar nominee. Another criteria is to be vouched for by a current Academy member. But if you are a black actor or director that isn’t getting enough work in the industry to establish those relationships to begin with, how are you expected to have someone on the inside endorse you? It seems nearly impossible.
Many people were upset about Ava Duvernay being snubbed for her work in Selma, so let’s take a look at the checklist for the Directors Branch of the Academy.
To be considered, an individual must:
Have a minimum of two directorial credits, at least one of which is from the most recent ten years, on theatrical feature films of a caliber which, in the opinion of the executive committee, reflect the high standards of the Academy, and/or have directorial screen credit on a picture nominated for the Academy Directing Award, for the Academy Best Picture and/or for the Academy Foreign Language Film Award, or have, in the judgment of the Directors Branch Executive Committee, otherwise achieved unique distinction, earned special merit or made an outstanding contribution as a motion picture director.
Under these stipulations, DuVernay would qualify only if the Board of Governors determined that her 2012 film Middle of Nowhere reflected the Academy’s “high standards.”
But Gina Prince-Bythewood, director of Beyond The Lights, would not. Prince-Bythewood tells stories that go largely ignored by the Academy. She doesn’t make prestige films or movies that cast black characters in a historical context in order to qualify their worth. Instead, her projects are usually contemporary, often romantic and lacking the comedic elements that normally provide levity to romantic films with black casts.
I understand that part of what makes the Oscars so alluring is their air of exclusivity. However, if these shows are seen as the universal benchmark of moviemaking excellence, it’s concerning that their guidelines (which are publicly available on the Academy’s website) rely so heavily upon the subjectivity of a mostly male and nearly all white Board of Governors.
The deck is stacked against diversity from the very beginning.
A big prerequisite for getting an Oscar is “Academy-quality” theatrically-released work. But a lot of black actors have to go to independent studios to find work. Would those lower budget productions qualify? And how many films that do land on the Academy’s radar even cast black actresses? How many “Academy-quality” movies have roles that center around people of color and our humanity — instead of just using us to support male or white characters?
According to the 2015 nominations, not many.
Yes — it would be nice if more black women were not only nominated but actually won for something other than portraying slaves, maids and abusive mothers. But if the Academy is serious about diversifying its winner’s circle, the first legitimate step is changing the requirements to become a member of its branches.
It’s almost too ironic that the actors and director of a film about the fight to make voting in America more inclusive is snubbed by the Academy because of its exclusionary voting practices.
All things considered, this year’s #OscarsSoWhite reality check shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. The system is doing exactly what it was built to do: keep us out.
Follow Renaldo Christopher on Twitter @070180