#OscarsSoWhite Creator on Academy's "Tepid" Inclusion Requirements (Guest Column)

Illustration by Sara Andreasson
Illustration by Sara Andreasson

When one examines the initiative closer, it becomes clear that these new standards will change little.

In a time when organizations in every industry are attempting to publicly display their “wokeness,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced new inclusion standards for Oscar eligibility in the best picture category. On their face, these standards appear to move the needle with respect to issues of diversity in film. (For example: At least one of the lead actors or supporting actors must be from an underrepresented group. Alternatively, 30 percent of secondary roles must be from at least two underrepresented groups, or the film’s themes must be centered on underrepresented communities.) The standards purport to require filmmakers who want their films to be considered in this category to be intentional with respect to who works on the film, both in front of and behind the camera, from preproduction to distribution. But when one examines the initiative closer, it becomes clear that these new standards will change little.

In 2016, year two of #OscarsSoWhite, when for a second consecutive year no people of color were nominated in any of the acting categories, the Academy announced its intention to double both the number of people of color and the number of women within its membership ranks. This year, the Academy announced with much fanfare that it had met its goals. Yet by the Academy’s own calculations, its membership is still 81 percent white and 67 percent male, despite there being twice as many people of color and women. Because the Academy still does not require its membership to actually view films before they vote, even in the best picture category, what results is little more than a popularity contest among older white men. This isn’t progress, though the Academy would like you to believe otherwise. So, too, would the Academy have you believe that its latest initiatives will result in systemic change. Yet, upon inspection, it is clear that there is yet more window dressing on a house that has been condemned.

First, the new policies don’t take effect until the 96th Oscars in 2024. Obviously, a global pandemic has ground much of the film industry to a halt. However, two of the four categories in the Academy’s new best picture Oscar diversity initiative, “Industry Access and Opportunities” and “Audience Development,” can be met regardless of what stage a film was in when studios shuttered during the first part of 2020. Since a film only needs to meet two categories to qualify for consideration, one wonders why the Academy is waiting so long to institute these changes.

This brings us to the second glaring misstep with the Academy’s new policies: the loopholes. Eleven of the past 15 best picture Oscar winners would easily meet the new standards. In fact, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which tracks race and gender data in Hollywood films, reported that 95 of the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 meet standard A (“On Screen Representation, Themes, and Narratives”), while 71 of the 100 top films of 2018 meet standard B (“Creative Leadership and Project Team”). If films like Green Book, which was widely criticized for its handling of issues regarding marginalized communities, and films like The Irishman, in which marginalized communities aren’t present onscreen even as background, can still qualify for the new standards without even trying, they do not go far enough.

To be clear, these new policies are voluntary and only apply to the best picture category. Some who mistakenly see the Academy’s new standards as forced diversity are those whose work to date would never be considered in the best picture category. While Kirstie Alley may believe she made entertaining films with the Look Who’s Talking franchise, she also knows they would not be under best picture consideration, as feel-good family comedies rarely are.

Nothing is being forced upon filmmakers, and these tepid changes should have been implemented long ago. Attempting to be considered for a best picture Oscar, or any other award, should be at the end of a film’s process. The real work regarding inclusion should begin when the screenwriter opens their laptop. Who is telling the story, and whose story is being told, should be the questions that drive filmmaking. The goal is to normalize inclusion — to make investing in the talent of marginalized communities so commonplace that attempting to check off boxes after the fact is redundant. What the Academy has engaged in is performative allyship: The press release might seem impressive, but the Academy has yet to ensure that traditionally underrepresented communities not only have a seat at the table, but are leading the conversation.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.