'12 Years a Slave' Screenwriter on Oscar Diversity: "We Are Not the Fringe" (Guest Column)

John Ridley Best Adapted Screenplay - P 2014
AP Images/Invision

John Ridley Best Adapted Screenplay - P 2014

This piece by John Ridley, a member of the Academy's writers branch who won the best adapted screenplay Oscar for 2013's 12 Years a Slave and created ABC's American Crime, is part of an ongoing series of guest columns by Academy members about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the Academy's response to it.

To our Board:

For your leadership, for your decisiveness, for actively engaging in the art of the possible at such a critical juncture, my appreciation.

Though the impact of your decision to amend the Academy membership guidelines may not be immediately evident, your action cannot be dismissed as just a play for diversity.

“Diversity” is at best a decent notion that compels those with authority to occasionally sprinkle “others” — women, and people of color — across the visible landscape. What the Board enacted was based on the urgent need to reflect and respect the domestic and global audience, which disproportionately patronizes the American movie industry, yet at the same time is systemically excluded from it.

That is not opinion. That is fact. 

Reports from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, and the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA — among others — speak to the obvious: Women and people of color are under-represented in all aspects of film (and television) production. More painfully, the industry is going through an era of regression that two years of the exclusion of people of color among Oscar nominated actors does not even begin to illuminate. There are any number of arts and crafts positions that have gone far more than a few of cycles without the representation of the array of people who populate our business.

The awards themselves are a lagging, not leading, indicator of the state of the industry. They are, however, a firm arc in a vicious cycle where films from a prevailing frame of reference are created, lauded and replicated to the point they singularize any other perspective; they are considered specialty tales rather than popular fare.

We are not the fringe. We are not genre. We are the mainstream.

And yet, speaking to that gave rise to a vocal minority within the greater community who have taken up a posture that is seemingly both defensive, and guilt-ridden. Some voluntarily feel the need to offer up that they arent “racist.” Likely they are not. However, they make this protest as if their own lack of proactive bigotry means that a system itself cannot contain bias. In the end, its not enough to claim what one isnt, yet do nothing to change what is.

Thankfully, the Board, vehemently agreed.

The Board — for that matter the membership at large who actively want change — cannot be left to do the job alone. For those who have been graciously invited to be included in one of the most select of communities, we cannot relegate our responsibilities to end-of-the-year screenings. It’s up to the membership — all of the membership — to support all aspect and ideals of cinema, which the Academy represents through education, outreach and artistic development. We can’t simply lament circumstances at the end of each year. In the course of every season we must work to secure our own vibrancy. It is my hope and belief that when the Board speaks of “active” members, they will take into consideration not only work in the industry, but good works within the community.

Though the Board leads, and in this circumstance leads well, the Academy belongs to all of its membership. All of its membership can do so much more to represent. For that, no invitation is needed. To effect change, no ones permission is required.

John Ridley