Employees of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been working from home since March 13 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. And the Wilshire Boulevard-facing, glass-encased lobby of the organization’s Beverly Hills headquarters has been boarded up with plywood for over a week now, a precautionary measure taken ahead of the protests that began last Friday in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota on May 25.
For many years, the Academy was loath to involve itself in social or political debates, or to acknowledge its own role in causing them. But after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of 2015 and 2016, when none of the 20 acting Oscar nominees was a person of color for two consecutive years, the organization began a makeover — most notably through its A2020 initiative, through which it sought to double the number of women and people of color among its membership — that has not been without hiccups and is still ongoing, but which has undeniably changed its face.
In recent days, in particular, the Academy appears to have made a concerted decision to espouse a clear position in response to Floyd’s death.
On Sunday, the organization posted a statement on its social media accounts that reads, “The death of George Floyd is not acceptable to anyone. We stand in solidarity with our black members, colleagues, storytellers, artists and with all black people across our nation because we know Black Lives Matter. The Academy adds its voice to the call for justice. We must shine a brighter light on racism and do our part to step up to this moment.”
Two days later, the Academy joined millions of others with Instagram accounts in supporting the #BlackoutTuesday movement by posting the image of a black square, without a caption, to indicate a day of reflection about racial injustice.
And on Thursday, the Academy’s Twitter account retweeted a post by the black filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who, in her own tweet, echoed comments made in a Screen Daily interview with the black actor David Oyelowo about the reception accorded to their 2014 film Selma by some Academy members.
“That was the last time we were in a place of ‘I Can’t Breathe,'” Oyelowo told the magazine, referring to the last words of Eric Garner, a black man who had died at the hands of police months earlier. “I remember at the premiere of Selma us wearing ‘I Can’t Breathe’ T-shirts in protest. Members of the Academy called in to the studio and our producers saying, ‘How dare they do that? Why are they stirring S-H-I-T?’ and ‘We are not going to vote for that film because we do not think it is their place to be doing that.’ It’s part of why that film didn’t get everything that people think it should’ve got and it birthed #OscarsSoWhite. They used their privilege to deny a film on the basis of what they valued in the world.” (Similar comments were also made by an Academy member to The Hollywood Reporter at the time.)
DuVernay’s tweet linking to the Oyelowo article reads, “True story.” Hours later, the Academy responded, “Ava & David, we hear you. Unacceptable. We’re committed to progress.”
Despite the A2020 push, the Academy, Hollywood’s most elite club, is still dominated by older white men. Indeed, as THR‘s Rebecca Keegan reported earlier this year, “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.”
Keegan continued, “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.”
On Friday afternoon, a quartet of actresses of color — Aunjanue Ellis, an Emmy nominee for DuVernay’s When They See Us and an Emmy contender this year for The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel, as well as Milauna Jackson, Tanayi Seabrook and Stephanie Lacey — convened a gathering in support of #BlackLivesMatter outside of the Academy’s headquarters, rather than somewhere else, attracting a crowd that appeared to number several hundred to “express ourselves creatively through song, poetry, movement and speaking from the heart.”
The coming weeks may bring further developments from the Academy related to diversity and inclusion. Its 54-person board of governors will convene via Zoom on Thursday, pushed back two days from its originally-scheduled date of Tuesday, as that is now the day when Floyd’s funeral service will take place in Houston. This will probably be the final gathering of the board in its current composition, since 17 board seats came up for reevaluation in elections that began on Monday and ran through Friday afternoon.
A number of prominent people of color were on the ballot this cycle, including incumbent governors Whoopi Goldberg and Wynn Thomas, Django Unchained‘s Oscar-nominated producer/past governor Reginald Hudlin, 12 Years a Slave‘s Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley and DuVernay.
In July, meanwhile, the Academy will announce the names of individuals its branches are inviting to join their ranks this year. Working from the assumption that the vast majority of those who are invited will accept, it is widely expected that with this new wave the Academy will have surpassed both of its A2020 benchmarks — and will subsequently establish a pair of new goals.