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Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the veteran marketing executive who was the first black president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and in that role ushered in a new era of inclusion within the membership of the organization, was toasted by Hollywood’s black community on Tuesday night at the sixth annual pre-Oscar dinner of ICON MANN, a lifestyle media platform dedicated to honoring the achievements of cross-industry influencers of color. She was presented with the Legacy Award, which honors “an individual whose body of work has positively transformed the narrative and trajectory of black culture.”
Among those on hand for the elegant gathering, which took place in a ballroom at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, were emcee Cedric the Entertainer; toasters Quincy Jones, Halle Berry, Kobe Bryant, Channing Dungey, Mykelti Williamson and Common; and many other influential people of color from various sectors of Hollywood, including actor Dennis Haysbert, director Dee Rees, casting director Reuben Cannon, publicist Arnold Robinson, journalist Gil Robertson and documentarians Charles Burnett and Roger Ross Williams and Yance Ford.
“This is a room full of the most talented, wonderful, giving, loving people that there are in all of — probably the world, but certainly in this town,” Boone Isaacs said when she took the podium. “As I came through and came up, there weren’t many gatherings where we had more than, I don’t know, three or four African-Americans in the room together. Of behind-the-scenes folks, there was Reuben [Cannon], Ashley [Boone, her late older brother] and Suzanne de Passe [of Motown Productions]. Those were the three that I remember. We’d go to an event and you could look around and that’s where you could see people that looked like you. That was a small number.” She added, “We could never have had this even 20 years ago, 10 years ago.”
Boone Isaacs worked her way up the hierarchy and into the executive suite at several studios, ultimately becoming, in 1997, the first black woman to reach the level of president at a major Hollywood studio (when she became president of theatrical marketing at New Line). She helped to orchestrate campaigns for films such as Beverly Hills Cop, Fatal Attraction, Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Titanic, The King’s Speech and The Artist. But Boone Isaacs is best known for her 25 years of service to the Academy’s board of governors, during which she represented its public relations branch, and for the last four of which, spanning 2013-2017, she also held the organization’s top elected job.
Boone Isaacs, in tandem with Academy CEO Dawn Hudson, presided over one of the most consequential periods in the Academy’s history. For two years in a row, none of the 20 acting nominees were people of color, triggering widespread outrage which went viral in the form of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. The Academy responded with an unprecedented push — which had already been in the planning stages — to diversify the organization.
This year — the first since Boone Isaacs vacated the presidency and her seat on the board in order to focus on her private consulting firm CBI Enterprises — there will be markedly more diversity on display at the Oscars. Four of the 20 acting nominees are people of color; a woman and black man are among the five nominees for best director; and Get Out, a film about racism in America, might well win best picture.
Boone Isaacs is the younger sister of the aforementioned Ashley Boone, who, in 1979, became the first black man to reach the level of president at a major Hollywood studio (when he became president for distribution and marketing at 20th Century Fox). A fellow member of the Academy’s board of governors, he died in 1994. It was announced during the dinner that the USC Black Alumni Association has launched the Ashley and Cheryl Boone Isaacs ICON MANN Scholarship, which will help to educate two students each year. Boone Isaacs, seated beside her husband, filmmaker Stanley Isaacs (It’s Always About the Story: Conversations With Alan Ladd, Jr.), was visibly moved by the news.
Common, as a tribute to Boone Isaacs, recited the verses of his rap “The Day Women Took Over.” Bryant said, “Cheryl has been such a pioneer and a champion of inclusion that is so desperately needed today, more than ever.” And Berry addressed the honoree directly: “I remember the day, like it was yesterday, when I was told that you were going to be our new president. That very Academy that deemed me the first [black best actress Oscar winner] now had made you the first woman of color to be their president. I knew that while no one had stood next to me yet, you were now the president and change was coming. I’m so proud to be your friend, I’m so proud of everything you’ve done, I’m so proud to be a black woman when black women like you are leading organizations like the Academy. All the work that you did while you were there has changed the way the Academy runs, and nobody can take that away.” The actress added, “I was saddened when I got the news that you weren’t running for re-election — I was, I’m gonna tell you — because it meant so much, as a black woman, that you were there. I felt safer, I felt better about it. But I also know that you have more firsts to have.”
During her acceptance remarks, Boone Isaacs opened up about her tenure as president. She described her first election to the presidency as “an out-of-body experience, as you can imagine,” not least because, she said, “I had been on the board for 21 years as of that day, and in that time, if my memory is correct, there had been four or five Asian-Americans who had been members of the board, and there had been two African-Americans — I came on, and a few years later Ashley was elected … and, up until just a few years ago, not one Latino had ever been on the board of the Academy. So it was like, ‘What century are we in?'”
Boone Isaacs acknowledged, “In the back of my mind, I was always conscious of the fact that, too often, I was ‘the only one in the room,’ as we would say. But I didn’t have much power and ability to do any major change. Just little things, like when I was at Paramount, our publicity department was the most diverse department in all of Paramount, and we really worked very hard — and not in a patronizing way — to actually look around and see who had potential. Potential leads to success for us, individually and collectively, and — I constantly quote Viola Davis — it’s also about ‘opportunity.’ To me, every single time we succeeded in different areas, it was because we got the opportunity.” She continued, “I always, in the back of my mind, was, ‘How could I, at some point’ — didn’t know when, didn’t know how — ‘contribute to the possibilities of inclusion, the possibilities of helping any and everyone as they make a path.'” And then she became president. “I have to say,” she explained, “that with the support of the board — and gosh knows you need the support of the board — we managed to change some things, to introduce more people — a diverse group of people.”
After #OscarsSoWhite first exploded — something Boone Isaacs referenced indirectly, in explaining that Jones had been a close confidante through “challenging” times — the Academy, under her leadership, set about changing its composition. “There was a slight myth that in order to be an Academy member, you had to be in an Academy movie,” she said. “Well, I didn’t know what that meant, and I also knew that it also kept people out of the Academy. To me, it’s about who you are as a person and your brilliance in whatever area you have excelled in. Therefore, you should be in this room, you should be part of this conversation.” Efforts to promote inclusion revealed that many filmmakers who seemed like obvious Academy members had never been invited, she said: “[Director] Stan Lathan wasn’t in the Academy. [Director] Julie Dash was not in the Academy — that’s crazy, this is crazy stuff. And [producer] Preston Holmes.”
Boone Isaacs closed her remarks as follows: “We are a community, we have power, and our power is in our connectedness, our community. I can’t stress enough how much we all must work together and combine our talents and show all of Hollywood and show America and the world that we have arrived. We are here. Things are changing. And we are going to march on.”