The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has heard the grumblings, and now it seems it’s letting the opposing voices know that it’s prepared to take action. The response comes, apparently, from the top down: Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African-American to lead the organization, has not shied away from expressing her disappointment following the Jan. 14 Oscar nominations, which featured the second consecutive roster of all-white nominees.
Last year’s social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite reemerged and calls were raised for African-American performers to boycott, with pressure also weighing heavily upon Chris Rock to step down as the host of the telecast. Filmmaker Spike Lee has chosen to forego attending — a significant decision for him, since he received an honorary Oscar during the annual Governors Awards and would be recognized during the February presentation. A longtime critic of the Academy, Lee spoke about change within the industry at the November event.
It is curious to read the transcript of his comments, to hear the many references to highlights from throughout his career, where the focus was always about increasing minority presence in the ranks — not simply within the Academy, but in creative ranks and among the behind-the-scenes crafts and technical professions. He spoke of his pride regarding the Governors Award, although he was just as quick to point out his strong sense of connection “with the people in this industry (like me) who are now behind the camera. That was always the goal. If I got in, I was going to try and bring as many motherfuckers with me as possible!”
Diversity is the word, and the statistics tell us about the evolution the workforce and the country within the next 25-30 years.
But what does change look like in the film industry?
With Boone Isaacs at the helm, the Academy announced a series of reforms aimed at doubling both female and minority members by 2020 and the addition of new governors to the leadership board. Specifically, the plan calls for female membership numbers to reach 48 percent and minority representation to at least achieve 14 percent. In addition to these changes, the 51-member board of governors also signed off on limiting voting rights within the general membership to 10 years.
I can’t help but wonder how these changes to the composition of the Academy and the potential diluting of the power base of its aging (and overwhelmingly white) core will create the kind of impact Lee was talking about. This well-intended overhaul will definitely affect the nominating process for the Oscars in the coming years, much like the reactionary efforts to increase the number of Best Picture nominees did over the course of the last few years. But this, to my mind, feels like the media attention given to removing the Confederate flag from its esteemed position in Charleston, S.C. after the tragic shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, when the focus should have been on the larger and more pressing concern of gun violence.
Under the revisions, being in position to have Academy voting rights means maintaining active status in film during a 10-year period, doing work consistent with the efforts that earned the invitation or active status in the first place. To truly achieve such goals, minorities and women need to land jobs not just within the various branches of the Academy, but executive-level assignments with the power to greenlight productions. Only then would Lee’s vision for the industry have a real opportunity to become a reality.
Substantial change cannot spring into being as a result of such a rush to judgment. This produces shortsighted thinking and the misappropriation of responsibility and consequences. The longing to feel like efforts of redress have been made leads to, for instance, overwhelming praise for Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, the writer-director-star’s labor of love based on the story of slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, which the media can spin as an immediate response/reaction to the #OscarsSoWhite call-to-arms and the Academy’s new diversity implementation plans.
It would be wise for all parties to pump the brakes before this runaway narrative jumps the rails. Parker’s film should be seen within the proper context, because it did not start as a result of these recent efforts. It merely offers an example of the type of diversity that will be necessary moving forward.