When Issa Rae and John Cho announced the Oscar nominations Jan. 13, the duo seemed to embody many of the qualities the Academy has been striving for over the past four years — to become a younger, more gender-balanced, less white group that more closely mirrors cinema's global audience.
But the nominees Rae and Cho revealed suggest an Academy that is little changed, one where only one of the 20 acting nominations went to an actor of color — Cynthia Erivo for Harriet — and where none of the five directing slots went to a woman, a point Rae tartly acknowledged after disclosing the nominated directors' names when she said, "Congratulations to those men."
The homogenous nominations arrive as the Academy is four years into an aggressive and controversial inclusion drive, one in which more than half of the actors the organization has invited are people of color and nearly half the directors invited are women, according to a The Hollywood Reporter analysis. The group says it has met its goal of doubling its members of color and is close to meeting that milestone for women.
Despite these efforts at diversifying, the organization began from a place of such whiteness (92 percent in 2015) and maleness (75 percent) that the overall composition of the Academy — and in many ways its tastes and choices — are evolving much more slowly. And even if the group continues to invite members at this current, far more inclusive rate than it has historically, the Academy would never be representative of the U.S. population because its new classes have been 46 percent female and 31 percent people of color, while the U.S. is 50.5 percent female and 39.6 percent people of color. (If the Academy continues adding 46 percent women and 31 percent people of color it will grow closer to those proportions but never surpass them.)
In 2016, after the second year in a row of all-white acting nominees inspired boycott threats and the spread of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, the Academy launched its A2020 initiative, committing to doubling the number of members of color and doubling the number of women in its ranks by the end of this year. The group says it has surpassed this for members of color — that the Academy is now 16 percent people of color, up from 8 percent in 2015. And when the 2020 class of members is invited this spring, the organization expects to meet its aim for female members. For now, the Academy is 32 percent female, up from 25 percent female in 2015. To accomplish this change, the group dramatically grew the number of people it asked to join its ranks in the past four years, swelling its total voting members 35 percent, from 6,261 to 8,469.
"We went through our membership roster and said, 'Who have we not included? Who needs to be here?' " says Lorenza Muñoz, the Academy's head of member relations and awards. "And there was a very long list of people. Our members have really dug in and taken it very seriously."
These new members include people like Sony executive vp and head of TriStar Pictures Nicole Brown, who was among the 29 percent of the executive branch's invitees of color, and Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, who was among the 12 percent of Latinx newcomers to the actors branch and the 39 percent of new Academy members from outside of America. There is also Sherry Bharda, a female visual effects executive in India who is a rare woman of color in the visual effects branch, the most white (82 percent) and male (82 percent) of the Academy's new classes, and Kathryn Bostic, the first African American female composer asked to join the music branch, which has invited new classes that are 34 percent nonwhite and 35 percent female.
The Academy also has driven down the age of invitees. Though it does not disclose the average age of its membership, a 2012 Los Angeles Times analysis found its median age to be 62, with only 14 percent of members under 50. THR's analysis of the four most recent classes found a median age of 50, with 46 percent of invitees under 50. While one might expect each new class to be younger than the overall body, this is still a noteworthy movement toward lowering the average age, and comes in part thanks to invitations to young actresses like 16-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, nominated for 2012's Beasts of the Southern Wild, 23-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, nominated for 2010's True Grit, and 30-year-old Brie Larson, who won an Oscar for 2015's Room.
Branches that draw from Hollywood jobs with heavy female representation have propelled the boost in women's numbers in the new classes, such as costume designers (83 percent female), casting directors (83 percent female) and marketing/PR (63 percent female). The documentary branch, which has invited 63 percent women since 2016, is the first of the Academy's branches to move from majority male to gender parity since the membership drive began, according to one of its governors, director Roger Ross Williams. "Women power documentary filmmaking, whether they're directors or producers," says Williams, who also sits on the Academy's diversity committee. "I didn't understand how the doc branch could not have as many women as men. And so, every time I would reach out to the membership, I'd be like, 'Nominate a woman this year. Nominate a woman this year.' And this year we finally [achieved parity]."
The Academy acknowledged that it has backed away from a controversial aspect of its initial proposal — the plan to move some members to emeritus status, which would have sped up the change in the group's overall composition but was called ageist by some members. "It was an attempt to make sure that the membership that was voting was still active in the actual industry," says Muñoz. "We're not interested in looking at that anymore."
Instead, the group has boosted programs to foster the next generation of members, like Academy Gold, an internship, mentorship and fellowships program that places college students from underrepresented groups at 28 Hollywood companies; its grants for aspiring female filmmakers; and its Next Gen initiative aimed at reaching out to professionals who are already working in the film industry, but may be three to five years from reaching a career level where they meet the requirements of membership. "Some of the branches face pipeline issues, and so it becomes more difficult to find candidates who are at a level where they meet the requirements," Muñoz says.
The massive increase in the size of the new classes has crystallized one of the Academy's long-standing identity crises — can you be both an elite group and an organization that honors a populist art form? It's an issue the Academy has been puzzling over since its founding at the Ambassador Hotel in 1927, when MGM's Louis B. Mayer convened 36 white film industry professionals, three of them women, to start a club that would boost Hollywood's image amid rampant scandals and labor disputes. Ninety-three years later, the scandals and labor disputes persist, and so does much of the Academy's original power structure and its sense of discernment. "If the Academy membership is still 84 percent white and 68 percent male, and the average age of the Academy member is still late 50s, early 60s, this still boils down to a popularity contest among older white men in the film industry," says April Reign, who created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag in 2015 after a year of all-white nominees. "I'm not sure that we can be surprised by the 2020 nominations. Disappointed, yes, but not surprised."
Reign points to the limited spectrum of movies the group honors when it comes to stories that aren't about white men, noting that Lupita Nyong'o won an Oscar for her supporting role in 2013's 12 Years a Slave but wasn't nominated for her contemporary, Jekyll and Hyde-esque role as a wife and mother in this year's Us. Meanwhile, Erivo's nomination this year is for her performance as Harriet Tubman. "What we've seen is that the Academy typically only recognizes films of a certain type from marginalized communities," says Reign. "The majority of the roles that have been awarded by the Academy for black women have been them experiencing significant trauma, playing an enslaved woman or a woman living in abject poverty."
Some Academy members take issue with such a reductive view of their judgment. "When I fill out my ballot, I'm asking, 'What movie did I like the best?' " says former Academy president Hawk Koch, a 74-year-old producer. "I believe all of our members do that. I'm not asking, 'Is it a woman? Is it a person from a diverse background?' I'm very proud of the Academy for nominating the movies we did this year."
In the spring, the Academy will release an in-depth report on its inclusion progress and unveil some new initiatives, including asking its members to consider what, exactly, quality means to them.
"We'll be having a lot of conversations with our members about what excellence in art means," says Muñoz. "We have to put into place more mechanisms for Academy members to consider all types of movies for their achievement. There should be a willingness to broaden the aperture."
Reign suggests a fundamental shift in the Academy's view of itself. "We need to start honestly asking, 'Is the Academy as relevant as it claims to be?' " says Reign. "What made the Academy the pinnacle within the film industry? As far as I can tell, it was older white men about 90 years ago saying, 'We are going to celebrate ourselves.' And there was no one to challenge that idea that maybe it shouldn't just be you."
Additional data reporting by Breanna Andrews, Katie Campione, Amélie Cherlin, Alexandra Del Rosario, Sharareh Drury, Falen Hardge and Carita Rizzo.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.