Oscar Voter on Diversity Gripes: Lay Off Us, Al Sharpton! (Guest Column)

Al Sharpton - H 2014
AP Images/Invision

Al Sharpton - H 2014

Writing for THR, Oscar-nominated scribe Lionel Chetwynd ('The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz') argues that complaints about diversity miss that the Academy consistently has done a superb job picking the best movies to honor.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

And so it is official: I am incapable of evaluating anything not conceived in my own image, I can't be trusted to recognize excellence unless it is a child of my own experience. If a particular film or performance is of great importance to a specific identity group, I'm an implied bigot unless I suspend my critical judgment and, no matter what I think, cast my ballot in a way that won't offend the film's devotees or, heaven forbid, Al Sharpton.

I made much of my living in the docudrama business and always as a dogged servant to authenticity. The facts always had to be facts, the tone consistent with the truth. No twisting of individual stories to make my job easier. Hence, 12 Years a Slave was, for me, gripping; it cascaded truth. I'm not so sure that's the case with the entries in this year's Oscar sweepstakes.

But what if Mr. Sharpton and the other identity blocs are right and one can't appreciate particular excellence without the appropriate skin color, sexuality or whatever? In that case, what's the point of even having a single Academy? Surely the proper arrangement would be several Academies, one for every skin tone, racial configuration, sexual category and religious preference. Of course, that's pretty much the case now; come the turn of the year, one can hardly avoid tripping over an awards show anywhere in L.A. So you end up with the college football dilemma — Coaches Poll, BCS, playoff, who's the real No. 1!? In regard to movies, for almost 90 years, the answer has been the Academy Awards, voted on by members and on the basis of their individual excellence by their craft's peers, according to the craft standards. By definition, such a group will represent an older segment of the labor pool because craft isn't acquired in a day or a year. In fact, few craft groups recognize a one- or even two-hit résumé (in my writers' group, three worthy credits or a nomination are the minimum requirement). Change will come slowly in such a system, but it will come — over the past few years, Brits and Aussies are becoming the critical mass of younger members. Yes, one can force faster change in the name of diversity, but the price will be steep: Mediocrity is easily and quickly achieved. Excellence, not so much.

There's an upside: When one receives a nomination or especially an award, they have the certain knowledge that they deserve it in every way. No one can question that they faced the field, took on all comers and were judged the outstanding artist in their category. They are the "best." Nowadays, every kid in Little League gets a trophy. But there's no tokenism at the Academy Awards.

Look closely at its record, at the list of "best" pictures, the thousands of nominees. That the Academy has done an incredibly, remarkably, superbly, brilliant job of culling the wheat from the chaff, from raising the great above the ordinary and not being distracted by the fad of the moment, is inescapable. Leave it alone. Mr. Sharpton, we have no need of your attention. Enforced "diversity" will undermine the very mission of AMPAS. As new filmmakers and craftspeople achieve new levels of excellence, the face of the Academy will change as it should, to the meter of its time, the pace of its art.

You don't like the 2015 outcome? Wait till next year.

Lionel Chetwynd is a filmmaker, Oscar-nominated writer (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) and 30-year Academy member.