Oscars: Solution to Academy's Diversity Problem Isn't So Black and White (Analysis)

Dakota Johnson, Nate Parker, America Ferrera-Split-Getty-H 2016
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It seems like everyone, except perhaps Donald Trump, should be able to agree that a more diverse film industry — one reflective of the world beyond Hollywood — is something to which Hollywood should aspire. The question is: How best to arrive at that? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to its credit, wants to be part of the solution — more so than ever in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite blowups that followed its last two sets of Oscar nominations. But is that even really possible?

The Academy is caught between a rock and a hard place. Many people only think about the overall state of the film industry when they read about or watch the Oscars, and therefore blame the Academy when they see relatively few women and/or people of color being celebrated there. But the fact is that the Academy can only choose its Oscar nominees and winners from the options offered to it by the larger industry, which — for reasons that range from trying to cater to the specific tastes of foreign moviegoers to, in some cases, outright bigotry — has not presented it with a lot of variety.

Today, the Academy’s board of governors invited a record 683 people to join roughly 7,000 others in its membership, and an unprecedented percentage of their invitees are women (46 percent) and/or people of color (41 percent). In other words, the organization is trying to keep its promises, having vowed earlier this year to double its 2015 percentages in both demos by 2020. But there are some major questions about how it came up with this year’s invitation list — and whether it even begins to address the larger problem.

To be sure, many of the invitees are extremely deserving, having done standout work in multiple films (actors Oscar Isaac, Idris ElbaLuis Guzman, Kate Beckinsale, Michael B. Jordan and Emma Watson, director Cary Fukunaga, writer Yorgos Lanthimos, documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer). In fact, it’s mind-blowing that several weren’t invited to join years ago (directors Ken Loach, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski, Ramin Bahrani and Melvin Van Peebles, producer Jamie Patricof, documentarian Aviva Kempner, writer Richard Kelly, animator Peter Ramsey, publicists Barry Dale Johnson, Kelly Bush Novak, Lisa Taback and Ryan Werner).

But among the newly invited, there are also a host of people whose merits for inclusion seem hard to defend.

Some are widely known and unquestionably talented, but their achievements in the film realm, as opposed to other media, seem lacking — these are people who have mostly distinguished themselves in television (Black-ish’s Anthony Anderson, Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera, Saturday Night Live’s Tina Fey, Silicon Valley’s Martin Starr), theater (The Glass Menagerie’s Cherry Jones, Evita’s Patti LuPone, A Raisin in the Sun’s Anika Noni Rose) or music (will.i.am, Mary J. Blige).

Then there are a number of younger talents who have shown great promise, but who have done work that generated widespread acclaim in only one or maybe two films, if that (actors Dakota Johnson, John Boyega and Chadwick Boseman, directors Sam Taylor-Johnson, James Wan). A year from now, when people other than attendees of the Sundance Film Festival have seen The Birth of a Nation, maybe it will be appropriate to invite its director-star, Nate Parker, but at the moment, with great respect, it seems premature to invite him to join the actors branch.

And then there are people who have been on the scene and making films for many years, but films of a sort that critics deplore and that the Academy would never recognize for awards (Damon Wayans Jr., Keenen Ivory Wayans, Marlon Wayans).

None of the above is intended to question the talent of those individuals or suggest they can’t or won’t get to the point where they deserve to be invited to join the Academy. But, in my humble opinion, they are not there yet. (Yes, you can argue that a number of others who are already members of the Academy don’t deserve to be members either. I agree with you, but there's nothing we can do about it at this point, and two wrongs do not make a right.)

I suppose the biggest question is this: If the Academy was really stretching to produce this year’s invitation list — and, clearly, I feel it was — where does it go from here? This year's group barely makes a dent in the membership’s overall numbers. If all of them accept the invitation, the Academy's general membership will go from 25 percent to 27 percent female and 8 percent to 11 percent members of color. True, a little bit of progress is better than no progress. But I’m not convinced that an Academy with more diverse but less qualified members is a better Academy — or one that will be any less blamed if it fails to totally embrace, say, The Birth of a Nation later this year. Ultimately, we still come back to the same problem: the tail does not wag the dog. The Academy, try as it might, cannot change the industry. The industry from which the Academy chooses its members, nominees and winners, still needs to provide it with a greater variety of worthy options.