Earlier this week, dealing with the controversy over the 20-out-of-20 whiteness ratio in this year’s Oscar-nominated performers, Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs issued a statement of regret and, within that, a statement of intention.
“While we celebrate their extraordinary achievements,” wrote Boone Isaacs, the first African-American president in the academy’s history, “I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes. The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership. In the coming days and weeks we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond.”
She added, “the mandate is inclusion in all of its facets: gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.”
We have been here before with the Oscars. Last year, in fact. The Academy Awards handed out a year ago also confined itself to a list of actresses and actors, in lead and supporting ranks, reflecting a monolithically white talent roster. It’s not a matter of implementing some kind of unofficial quota. It’s a matter of recognizing what’s there, in front of the academy’s face. It’s talent going unrecognized, from Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation” on down.
Many of us have our particular examples of head-smacking Oscar nomination exclusions in front of and behind the camera. Last year it was certifiably ignorant for Ava DuVernay, director of “Selma,” not to receive an Oscar nomination. This year it was certifiably ignorant for Ryan Coogler, director of “Creed,” not to receive an Oscar nomination. It was certifiably ignorant for Michael B. Jordan, giving a sturdy, old-fashioned star performance, not to receive a best actor nod for “Creed.” And while I have problems with “Straight Outta Compton,” it sends an amusingly clueless message to nominate only white folks from “Compton” (for screenplay) and from “Creed” (Sylvester Stallone, a prime candidate for the best supporting actor prize).
Spike Lee declared Monday that he would boycott the Oscars this year. So did Jada Pinkett Smith, whose husband, Will Smith, stars in “Concussion” and didn’t get the nomination some think he deserved.
Decades from now, maybe it'll be easier to discuss the Oscars without breaking everything down by ethnicity and gender. We'll only need to change the entire makeup of the academy membership, not to mention the power structure of the film industry, for that to happen.
Last week “Straight Outta Compton” and “Ride Along 2” producer Will Packer wrote this on Facebook: “The academy’s voting record is only part of the issue. These films/performances and the scripts that drive them often go into development YEARS before they are released and thus in Oscar contention. We need more content produced by, written by, directed by and featuring filmmakers and actors of color being given the greenlight. … We need them to start moving forward this year so in 2019 there are quality projects in contention.”
Packer added: “It’s a complete embarrassment to say that the heights of cinematic achievement have only been reached by white people. I repeat – it’s embarrassing.”
Packer was right: It bears repeating.
In 2012 the Los Angeles Times published a story revealing what many already knew in their bones, and from the pattern of nominees over the years. Based on a sample of nearly 90 percent of the 6,000-plus academy members, the Times concluded that more than 90 percent of voters were white and more than 70 percent were male. Even so, what gives? Even a mass of solidly entrenched older white males should be able to recognize talent on the order of Coogler.
Earlier this month, accepting the LA Film Critics Association’s New Generation Award, the “Creed” director noted that it wouldn’t hurt what’s left of the critical community to diversify its own ranks. He said he appreciated the critical response to his work and that “in this world of Rotten Tomatoes and clickbait,” strong, independent critical voices are more valuable than ever. But he challenged those in attendance to “find the diversity … find the next Justin Chang,” referring to Variety’s chief film critic.
Academy President Boone Isaacs was right to express her frustration with the nominations this year. Now comes the hard work. Now it’s up to her to make sure the academy membership – one year, five years, a decade from now – goes beyond the pale. But it starts with the studios.
They need to go there first.