Film News

#OscarsSoWhite Round Two: The Academy’s Historic Changes Can Only Do So Much to Fix an Industry-Wide Problem

Often accused of being too big and slow to react to controversy, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences just made sweeping changes with an almost alarming swiftness.  Its board of governors held a secret emergency meeting late Thursday evening, and unanimously approved alterations to its bylaws (i.e., the board of governors will grow from 51 members to 54, the smaller committees will add new diverse members).  As far as the Oscars are concerned, the headline-grabbing changes are as follows:

  • The number of women and diverse members of the Academy will be doubled by 2020.
  • If an Academy member has won or been nominated for an Oscar they will continue to enjoy lifetime voting rights.
  • If not, voting privileges will now be limited to ten-year terms, renewable up to three times if the Academy member remains an active member of the film industry in each decade. After a member has served three ten-year terms, they will be granted lifetime voting rights. This change is retroactive to current members.

In balance, this recalls the recent reforms pushed through by the Baseball Writers Association of America to its own membership rules. In that instance, the BBWAA, the gatekeepers to the Hall of Fame, similarly eliminated a long-standing lifetime membership clause to weed out its most inactive, oldest members who were standing in the way of electing players from the steroid-era.

The change paid immediate dividends: Mike Piazza has now been voted into the Hall of Fame despite long-held suspicions that he abused steroids during his playing career. The old guard lost out to the younger, more progressive members of their profession, and that’s what the Academy is trying to do for the Oscars.

Because here’s what the Academy looks like right now:

Telegraph OscarsSoWhite chartWhether or not that means we’ll definitely see some actual color other than white in next year’s list of acting nominees remains to be seen. After all, you can’t vote for those performances which don’t exist, and isn’t it some form of reverse racism to assume that any new black, Asian and Hispanic members added in the next year will automatically vote for those films which reflect their own ethnicity? However, it’s a step in the right direction, and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs isn’t waiting for the industry to change, proudly declaring in a press release, “The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up.”

Regardless of what effect any of this will have the Oscar nominations going forward, doesn’t it seem like a mostly sensible idea for the Academy to put in some safeguards to ensure that people who have long since ceased working in the film industry and were never even nominated for an Oscar to begin with don’t get to vote anymore? In fact, we know that in some cases the studios were sending screeners to Academy members who had actually passed away, but their families had grown so used to all of the free movies they conveniently declined to inform the Academy that their dad/mom/grandpa/grandma/whatever wasn’t actually around anymore.

Many Academy members are actually are not happy about how all of this has gone down, though. “I think the Board Of Governors has made an egregious error in judgement. And not even consulting the membership (have a meeting – let people be heard) is insulting,” one top male studio executive told Deadline.

There’s also a lot of confusion out there. The changes won’t go into effect until after this year’s Oscars telecast, after which some Academy members will indeed lose their voting rights and be downgraded to Emeritus members. They’ll still get to go to all the Academy functions, but they won’t receive those free screeners anymore, the biggest perk of membership. Not everyone is clearly as to whether or not they will be downgraded or be allowed to continue voting:

[The changes to the voting rules] would have been a huge problem if it also applied to those who are already members, but the Academy has built in a lot of criteria that enables them to keep voting rights if they qualified under these terms during the course of their career. A quick check on IMDB of several older members I know who have not worked actively in years, showed across the board they would still be eligible to vote based on their previous career work over the decades. One actor I know says her phone is ringing off the hook from nervous members of a certain age, and the Academy would be wise to reassure them of these changes.

Essentially, something is being taken away from a lot of people, but that something is free access to movie screeners.

That might not be the world’s tiniest violin, but it was the closest I could find

Still, from their point of view they don’t like that the conversation around this issue has somehow framed them as being old sexists and racists. One longtime female member told Deadline, “Why does the Board believe the current membership is racist as a group? Many people mention age. Well those older member are baby boomers for God’s sake. That group out of all of the members have fought harder for minority and women’s rights than any other.”

Snubbed last year for Selma, Ava DuVernay took to Twitter to remind everyone that people have been actively campaigning for changes to the Oscars for years:

One good step in a long, complicated journey for people of color + women artists. Shame is a helluva motivator We’ve all felt shame even when we didn’t believe we were wrong. It’s the fact that EVERYONE ELSE thinks you’re wrong. Fix it mode kicks in. Marginalized artists have advocated for Academy change for DECADES. Actual campaigns. Calls voiced FROM THE STAGE. Deaf ears. Closed minds. Whether it’s shame, true feelings, or being dragged kicking + screaming, just get it done. Because the alternative isn’t pretty.

However, while the Academy continues their in-fighting and celebrities like DuVernay weigh in on Twitter and Instagram the film industry marches forward. Don Cheadle, an Oscar nominee for Hotel Rwanda in 2005, is currently at Sundance to promote his directorial debut Miles Ahead, an unconventional biopic of Miles Davis. When asked about the Academy’s recent changes, he offered cautious applause before emphasizing the oft-observed truth that the Oscars and other awards like it represent the absolute tail end of the filmmaking process, “I think it is a step in the right direction, a needed step. People have to have access to tell the stories they want to tell. So what we really need is people in positions to green light those stories, not a hunk of metal.”

Birth of a Nation 2016Rather than focusing so much on #OscarsSoWhite, we should be promoting emerging filmmakers of color like Nate Parker. The former college athlete and mainstream actor was so inspired by Nat Turner’s 1831 slave uprising that he quit acting and raised $10 million to write, direct, produce and star in Birth of a Nation, one of the buzziest films at Sundance this year (and, yes, there’s a reason he used the same title as D.W. Griffith’s oh-so-racist silent era classic). Who knows – maybe Parker’s name will be called this time next year when the next round of Oscar nominations are announced.

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