The Oscars made big news last week, but not the way they intended. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed its picks for the year’s best performances on Jan. 14, no actors of color were nominated for the second consecutive year. What’s more, acclaimed films with diverse casts – including Straight Outta Compton, Creed, and Beasts of No Nation – were shut out of the best picture category, and the nominations those films did receive went either to white screenwriters (for Compton) or to a white star (Sylvester Stallone for Creed).
As the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began trending, just as it did last year, ceremony host Chris Rock joked in a Twitter promo that he was thrilled to be hosting “The White BET Awards.” Then it got serious. Spike Lee, who was honored at the Academy’s Governors Awards months ago, and Jada Pinkett Smith announced they were boycotting this year’s Oscars and encouraged others to join them. [Note: Lee clarified to Good Morning, America on Wednesday that although he would not attend the Oscars, “I have never used the word boycott. … I’m not going, my wife’s not going. Everyone else can do what they want to do.”] Rock began facing pressure to resign as host in protest. Each day, more high-profile figures are lending their voices to the chorus calling for change. “For 20 opportunities to celebrate actors of color, actresses of color, to be missed last year is one thing,” said David Oyelowo, who starred as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Oscar-nominated Selma, at an event on Jan. 18. “For that to happen again this year is unforgivable.”
Although Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs (who has described herself as “heartbroken and frustrated” over the situation) has taken steps to make the Oscar telecast more inclusive — e.g., recruiting Reginald Hudlin (Django Unchained), who’s African-American, to co-produce the ceremony — only the Academy members can select the nominees. And that’s where the problem lies.
A 2012 Los Angeles Times study found that the roughly 6,000-member Academy is nearly 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male, with a median age of 62. Invitations to join the elite organization are typically limited to high-ranking professionals who are nominated by at least two peers; once admitted, membership is for life. Since Boone Isaacs was hired in 2013, the organization has added more members than usual, including many women and minorities, and she affirmed her commitment to that mission, vowing in a statement, “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.” For many, progress can’t come soon enough. “If we keep adding women and minorities at the rate we do, how long will it take? A hundred years?” asks one actress Academy member. “We can’t wait that long.” So how does the Academy fix its broken system?
Should the Academy add 1,000 new members? Should it admit only people of color for the next five years? That may seem extreme, but there’s no question that young, diverse talent would shift the kinds of stories and performances Oscar celebrates. “I do think [this] has to do with recruitment,” says one Academy governor. “I don’t think everyone is aware of who’s out there making good movies, minority or not.”
To determine the Best Picture nominees, members select five films in order of preference. That voting is weighted, meaning that first-place votes matter more than third-place ones. Some believe Compton received votes, just not enough in first or second place. Others speculate that voters never watched the N.W.A biopic. “I think the older members didn’t think it was a movie for them,” says one member. Adds another: “I haven’t seen every movie. Who has that kind of time? Especially when you’ve got to watch Making a Murderer.” The Academy might want to determine Best Picture the way it does Best Foreign Language Film: A diverse committee would choose the nominees and then members could only vote if they had seen all the films.
Should someone be an active member of the Academy if he hasn’t worked in 25 years? Perhaps it’s time to allow only those people currently working, or mentoring young talent, to vote. It might help prevent conventional sensibilities from becoming entrenched. “Change is coming,” says an Academy member. “It’ll probably get more messy before it gets better … but that’s fine.”
One thing’s for sure: When audiences tune in for the telecast on Feb. 28, they can expect Rock to confront the controversy head-on. “I can’t imagine a better host,” says one insider. “Someone who is unafraid to comment and is capable of doing it in a manner that will be both hilarious and deeply insightful.”
Additional reporting by Devan Coggan, Christian Holub, Shirley Li, and Lynette Rice