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This piece by Rutanya Alda, a member of the Academy’s actors branch who is best known for her work in ‘The Deer Hunter,’ is part of an ongoing series of guest columns by Academy members about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the Academy’s response to it.
Dear Madam President and members of the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:
I am a member of the actors branch of the Academy and every year, including this year, I spend hundreds of hours of my time viewing films for performance and excellence, as well as viewing the Student Academy Awards entries for the same criteria. I, and my fellow members, take this very seriously. It seems, however, that a few disgruntled folks that did not make the cut have made so much noise that they have actually caused the Academy to react to their demands by unilaterally making changes to our policy that affects our entire membership without involving the membership itself. Not only is the Academy’s reaction to the recent outburst diminishing the respect owed to the Academy membership at large, but more so, it makes the entire Academy seem guilty of these egregious complaints lobbied against them.
I’m very saddened and upset by all of this.
Actors are the least racist people I have ever known in my life. Yet, because of these few disgruntled voices, we are made out as racists in some kind of conspiracy to not nominate people of color. If this were not so insane, it would be comical. A simple glance back at previous years’ nominees and winners proves this to be true.
Our job is to evaluate talent and excellence. But now your actions have added a new, unspoken category — the “what is your ethnicity” category. This, unfortunately, comes with the ugly subtext that if you don’t vote for a person of color you are a racist. Excellence is rewarded regardless of ethnic background.
For those actors in the 5 percent range who are fortunate to have hugely successful careers, I doubt that they have time to view all the films and objectively nominate; it’s the Academy base beneath them that does. Our job is not to look at the color of peoples’ skin, but to use our years of experience to evaluate everything before offering up our best opinion of who should be rewarded for excellence. Most of the actors and films I nominate don’t make the cut. I respect that. I don’t go the the press about it.
A few years ago, I had a situation arise which completely exemplifies our recent troubles. An Asian actress friend of mine wished to join the Academy. She had theater and TV credits, but little in the way of film credits. I cautioned her that she may not be accepted because of this, but her response was only that she was a minority and therefore would get in. Needless to say, she did not because she lacked the essential credentials. This friend of mine then turned around and blamed the Academy for not accepting her because of her race, the very thing she was convinced would get her in in the first place. Now with your new policies and the climate they create, my friend will apply again and this time most likely she will be accepted. Her eligibility has not changed — she did not have the film credentials then, nor does she now. But now, perhaps, that may just be enough. Not only is the value of the Academy as a measuring stick for excellence in film lessened, but it will always raise the question: Did one get in because of merit or because of race? For any person of diversity, this will always shadow their acceptance into this fine institution.
The Academy is comprised of its many members because we ourselves are diverse. As a body, we bring experience, mentorship, dedication and lifelong achievement. By stripping members of their voting rights with the sanctioned 10-year periods, it ironically limits the voting to those who most likely have lesser experience and more likely have studio-based jobs, leaving the independent, struggling, experienced and foreign members on the other side of the door. In short, it will create the exact narrow-mindedness the Academy claims they are against.
And what of the teachers, the mentors and the retirees, with their lifelong achievements? Are they pointless because this year points in one direction while past years pointed in a completely different one? This is hateful and unacceptable. Older members mentor and teach younger writers, actors and others in this industry who hope for success in this competitive business. They use the very experience of their careers that the Academy now dares to block because of the nebulous status of “active.” Though they pass along their experience and wisdom, it is not to their credit.
Another wonderful friend who was a second assistant director on many all-time classic films decided to retire after 40 years in the business. His retreating from active duty does not make him less able to judge films, regardless of how long ago he may have been accepted into the Academy, whether five years or 40. Should he be dumped if he doesn’t meet the quota despite the fact that experience and expertise got him into this establishment to begin with? And should this also apply to those independent and foreign filmmakers who are struggling to make films in a very studio-centric system?
The recent changes in our Academy are just another form of discrimination. Now that it has crept into the Academy, it is disturbing and wrong. Our branch acts. We don’t make the films or write and cast them. The lesson here is to look for and support writers, and I mean financially support them. Help them to write great stories. And what about the people that are complaining, who also have the financial ability to produce? The pressure should be on them, as well, to nurture and support talent, not complain when their film doesn’t get nominated.
The Academy is supposed to be a place of stature and accomplishment, not a university of affirmative action. This is the most difficult business in the world and no one is “entitled” to success in this industry. It takes a lot of work and a tremendous amount of tenacity to survive in this industry, and it’s about the years of learning and contribution, merit and struggle. Acceptance into the Academy used to reflect that.
So to you, Academy leaders: I feel you have caved in to a few loud voices, instead of bringing your thoughts to the membership to get their input. That is what democracy is, not allowing a few voices to speak for all of us.
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