“The Academy has not been deaf to the controversy this year,” a seasoned member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who asked to remain anonymous, tells me over email. A relief to hear considering the backlash surrounding the noticeable lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominees, summated by the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.
Upon releasing their nominations for the 88th Academy Awards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has become the subject of criticism after its list of nominees contained only white actors for the second year in a row. Last year, a meaty catalogue of films — such as Creed, Straight Outta Compton, and The Force Awakens — featured black actors in prominent roles, yet, none of them received nominations. Now, movielovers within and without the industry are questioning whether quality of performance is in fact the only thing the Academy is evaluating.
“All of a sudden, you feel like we’re moving in the wrong direction,” actor George Clooney recently told Variety. President Barack Obama asked, “are we making sure that everybody is getting a fair shot?”
The Oscars assume the unique role of praising a group of films that supposedly reflect or embody the zeitgeist of our time. Surely one would expect a wider diversity of talent, stories, and performances to be awarded by a ceremony meant to represent a world as diverse as ours.
The Varsity recently spoke a veteran of the industry with a career spanning three decades. They spoke on topics such as the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, how the Academy will be reshaping moving forward, and how the film industry has changed in the last 30 years.
The Varsity (TV): What would you say of 2016’s film lineup? In your opinion, are the right pictures being recognized?
Academy Member (AM): The ‘right’ pictures? [It’s] hard to qualify that, really. Every year there are fantastic films that never have a prayer of making it into the sights of the Academy members, simply because their advertising and promo campaigns aren’t as visible. That does not mean that the films nominated don’t deserve to be there; they do. These films are top quality on all levels. It is also important to know that all members from all branches nominate for Best Picture, and then each branch nominates in their area: Actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors, make-up artists nominate make-up artists, etc.
TV: What do you make of the controversy surrounding the lack of diversity at this year’s Academy Awards?
AM: Diversity is an issue. It starts with what gets written – and more importantly, what gets greenlit – and ends often with very ‘white’ nominations, in part due to the lack of diversity in what films get made. That said, the Academy has not been deaf to the controversy this year. The president of the Academy (an African-American woman) has made some changes to the membership moving forwards. Active voting eligibility for each member will be reassessed every 10 years instead of the lifetime privilege it has been given up until this year.
TV: If you consider the controversy to be a problem, is this a problem within the Academy, or do you think this controversy is relates to a bigger diversity issue within the whole industry?
AM: I think diversity is a problem in the world, not just in the film industry. The film industry is in the unique position of being able to bring the issue to a higher level of visibility, and is able to keep the conversations going.
TV: In what way(s) have you seen the film industry shift from an insider’s perspective since your time in it?
AM: Television and online media are now as valid a creative medium as film is. Film used to be the only star. No longer. The quality and caliber of the content streaming to a laptop or tablet near you is often on par with the best films released today. Theatrical film producers take fewer risks (and there’s a lack of diversity as a result) because of the difficulty in getting people into theaters. Sequels reign supreme because they are pretty safe bets. Most of the interesting, daring, risky projects are happening on the smaller screens. And yet, I still believe in the magic of sharing a great movie experience with an audience in a theater: images thrown onto a gigantic screen, a killer immersive sound system, and of course, all cell phones off.
TV: In your opinion, is the Academy’s response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy enough? How helpful do you think this will be for diversity in the film industry?
AM: I think it is absolutely a step in the right direction. Is it enough? Probably not. However, the issue is deeper than ‘Oscars So White.’ What is needed just as much as a more diverse Academy membership is more diverse, theatrical content, and opportunities for talented people of all descriptions.
TV: Why are academy members’ voting eligibility now being reassessed every 10 years? Do you think this policy will be beneficial?
AM: I don’t think it will hurt. If the active voting members can accurately represent the array of talent that is currently working [in the film industry], I can’t see how that would hurt. Hollywood is very good at spreading different points of view, and waking people up to these issues. It is high time for diversity in its own ranks to be scrutinized. That said, when being judged, or comparing creative talent, I only want to be nominated based on my talent. I do not want to be nominated because I am a person of color, a woman, plus-sized, gay, or any other minority.
TV: Do you think there’s more that the Academy should be doing to increase diversity in Hollywood?
AM: The Academy honors theatrically released films. Its members can do more by hiring people in all cinematic art forms that do not look like they do. They can green-light stories with roles written for people that are of all sizes, genders, and colors. And the movie going public can support all these efforts by going to see the films embrace these people.