The Academy's Newest Diversity Moves: Three Takeaways (Analysis)

Cheryl Boone Isaacs Dawn Hudson - H 2013

Cheryl Boone Isaacs Dawn Hudson - H 2013

On Tuesday evening, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released a summary of decisions made at its Board of Governors' first meeting since the 88th Oscars ceremony took place on Feb. 28, many of them pertaining to the Academy's response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.

Here are my three biggest takeaways from their press release.

1. The Academy appears to be tiptoeing away from the most controversial aspects of its response to #OscarsSoWhite.

After the 88th Oscar nominations, announced in January, included not a single performer of color and few other diverse nominees for the second year in a row — which gave rise to a repeat of the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite — the Academy's leadership was under immense pressure to show that it disapproved of that outcome and that it would take steps to prevent it from occurring again.

An emergency meeting of the board of governors was convened and, reportedly under pressure from president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, CEO Dawn Hudson and secretary Phil Alden Robinson, the governors unanimously approved a sweeping overhaul of the organization's Oscar voting policy. The most controversial element: Members who had never received an Oscar nomination, who had not been "active" during the past decade and who had not been "active" in parts of three consecutive decades since joining the Academy would lose their voting privileges after the 88th Oscars.

The general public, which was mostly unfamiliar with the Academy's voting procedures (i.e. only the actors branch determines acting nominees, etc.), was placated. But, contrary to comments made by the Academy's leadership to The Hollywood Reporter in the immediate aftermath of the announcement, many Academy members — the people who elect the board of governors — strenuously opposed the new rules governing voting rights, arguing that they scapegoat older members for a problem that exists not within the Academy, but rather within the larger industry. (This position was taken publicly by rank-and-file members and more prominent members, such as Steven Spielberg and Harvey Weinstein.)

The Academy's leaders could not back away from their position prior to the 88th Oscars on Feb. 28, during which host Chris Rock eviscerated Academy members for their alleged racism. But based on Tuesday's announcement issued after the first post-Oscars meeting of the board, it appears that they are now quietly neutering their overhaul.

How? First of all, the requirement of activity during three consecutive decades after becoming a member of the Academy (for people who have never been nominated for an Oscar and haven't worked in the industry in the last 10 years) has now been re-termed to require activity "anytime during three 10-year periods whether consecutive or not." Based on that new wording, it appears that significantly fewer members will lose their voting privileges. Members who were invited to join the Academy later in life, after most of their careers were already behind them, now appear to be safe, as do members who stepped away from the business to raise a family and then returned to it. That seems reasonable to me.

(Most of the members who are still on the chopping block are probably people who were invited to join based on a brief but impressive body of work, and who then left the film industry entirely for one reason or another. They are not going to be any happier after this announcement, but their cause for griping is considerably lesser than the others.)

Additionally, the board has now foisted the final decisions about whether or not a member retains voting privileges on to each branch's executive committee, which the board has also empowered to "determine specific criteria" to consider when they meet "every two years — starting this spring — to review their members and determine any potential reclassifications. The committees also will adopt an appeals process for members who may lose their voting privileges." Since it appears that a considerable number of members are unhappy with the voting policy overhaul, and since voters elect their governors, I suspect it's extremely unlikely that any but the most egregious cases will result in a revocation of voting privileges.

2. The Academy seems to want to emphasize that it does not see diversity as a black and white issue.

Earlier today, the actor George Takei — one of 25 Academy members of Asian descent who expressed outrage about racist jokes made during last month's Oscars telecast — vented to me about what he saw as the Academy's limited view of diversity. How, Takei asked, could the organization allow host Chris Rock to spend his entire monologue complaining about the lack of black nominees — and then perform a skit making fun of Asians?

"I mean, diversity means much more than black and white," he said with exasperation. "It means Asian-Americans, it means Latinos, it means LGBT people, it means Native-Americans, it means — particularly in today's context — Arab-Americans."

Takei and others who share his frustrations must be much happier tonight than they were this morning. Not only did they receive a written apology from Academy CEO Hudson, but the organization subsequently revealed the identities of its three new "diversity governors," appointed by Academy president Boone Isaacs and approved by the existing board of governors — and there is plenty of diversity as Takei defines it.

Yes, the appointees include one black man, Reginald Hudlin of the directors branch (an Oscar nominee for 2012's Django Unchained, he also co-produced February's Oscars), but also a man of Hispanic descent, writers branch member Gregory Nava (an Oscar nominee for writing 1983's El Norte) and a woman of Asian descent, short films and feature animation branch member Jennifer Yuh Nelson (an Oscar nominee for directing 2011's Kung Fu Panda 2).

The Academy also appointed non-white members to serve on the six committees that advise the board of governors, including actors branch member Gael Garcia Bernal, who joins the awards committee, and producers branch member Effie Brown (perhaps best known for calling out Matt Damon for being racially insensitive on Project Greenlight), who joins the museum committee.

3. The Academy's board of governors is aware of the fact that there will be a referendum on their actions when the next board elections take place this summer.

Back in January, when the Academy trumpeted the fact that the 51 members of its board of governors had unanimously approved a sweeping overhaul of the organization's Oscar voting policy, it did so to emphasize the seriousness with which the board regarded the #OscarsSoWhite controversy — but, in so doing, it may also have signed the "death" warrant of a number of those governors.

Why? Because one-third of them are up for re-election in July, and a large and vocal contingent of the members who they were elected to serve feel that they and their good names have been sold up the river by the governors in the name of political correctness, a sense that was only further reinforced on Oscar night. (Some are actually exploring a class-action lawsuit against the organization for reasons related to age discrimination.) And because the Academy revealed that all of the governors supported the overhaul, members don't have to wonder about which side of the debate their branch's incumbent governor fell on.

Even with Tuesday's walk-back by the board, a sizable number of members will go into the election with a "throw all the bums out" mentality (not entirely unlike the one that has propelled the Trump and Sanders presidential campaigns ... but I digress). I have even heard from members who plan to challenge their branch's incumbent governor on a platform of opposing the overhaul.

The bottom line? This story has only just begun.