The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has just announced major changes for the upcoming years, with plans to add new, diverse members to the Academy’s voting body. These changes have been universally lauded and called "historic." The ultimate goal of these changes, one could surmise, is to increase the diversity of Oscar nominees and winners.
These changes aren't meaningful. They won't work, and they shouldn't.
That is not to say that diversity of the Academy’s voting membership isn't a real concern. As has been reported ad nauseam, the demographic makeup of the academy is overwhelmingly old white men. It’s not a bold or even especially admirable statement to say that all types of people interested in cinema should be afforded the opportunity to choose the best films and contributions to film of the year, should they be otherwise qualified. If the Academy’s changes were intended simply to fix that disparity, they would be doing exactly the right thing.
While the good that will be done by making the voting body more diverse is inarguable, the understanding under which the Academy is operating paints an unbelievable, backwards and harmful picture of the American population, white and otherwise. The idea is this: more diverse voters will mean more diverse awards recipients. What this relies on is the idea that white people are less inclined, or simply not at all inclined, to vote for people of color. It also relies on the reverse of that argument: people of color are more inclined to vote for, or will automatically vote for, other people of color. While the motivations of the Academy are undoubtedly pure, I’m not sure which part of this idea is more offensive.
The first half - that white people automatically won’t vote for people of color - is based purely on the concept that either all or an effective majority of more than 6,000 people (the Academy’s voting body) is simply racist. The second half is based on the idea that people of color will only, or are more inclined to, acknowledge roles of people of color. If the Academy is right, then these ideas are true, and that is not a world I want to live in. So no: these changes should not work.
I won’t attempt to put myself in the shoes of a person of color - I am a cishet white male - but I do know that if I was asked to join the voting body of an awards organization so that organization could ensure that more cishet white males were nominated, my response would be an unqualified “no,” because the idea that I am, for some reason, more likely to respond to cishet white men than I am other types of people is offensive, and I wouldn’t expect people of color to react any differently.
Surely, the uncontested goal of the Academy Awards is to recognize the best films and best contributions to film in a given year. It doesn’t always happen. At the 87th Academy Awards, many people made headlines (rightfully so) about the snub of David Oyelowo, who portrayed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Oscar-nominated “Selma.” Lost in that year is that performances such as Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler,” Ralph Fiennes in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Tom Hardy in “Locke” also got swept under the rug in favor of Oscar-bait roles such as Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything” and Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher.”
I don’t necessarily get upset when people of color don’t get nominated for Academy Awards; I get upset when the best performances of the year don’t get nominated, but how can we ensure this happens?
While the demographic makeup of the Academy’s voting body is important, it likely has little effect on the diversity of Oscar nominees. This is certainly a point you can argue against, but not without making the claim that an effective majority of 6,000 people is racist, and that’s not an argument I’m willing to make. Even if you do argue against this point, though, consider that the structure of the nomination and voting process has far more to do with the lack of awards diversity.
“Big Hero 6” was awarded 2014’s Best Animated Feature Oscar. Many people did not consider this the best animated film of the year, but the voting body of the Academy did. It also turns out that the voting body of the Academy largely didn’t watch many (or any) of the other films that were nominated, with one referring to the Irish and Japanese nominees both as “Chinese,” without watching them, and casting a vote anyhow.
Many isolate this phenomenon to the Animated Feature category, and that is false. Surveys have shown that several percent of Oscar voters did not watch all the movies in the Best Picture category. Many also isolate this problem to nominated films, which is again false. Consider that 305 movies were eligible for Awards consideration for the 88th Academy Awards. Even looking past the politics involved in becoming eligible, how on Earth does anyone expect the Academy to recognize the best films when they likely haven’t seen them all? Academy voters don’t and can’t watch all of those movies. Full-time, professional movie critics often don’t eclipse 300 films in a given year. Doing so would amount to seeing roughly eight movies every 10 days.
Considering that people who have nomination power in the Academy are industry people themselves (actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors and so forth), they don’t have the time to watch all eligible films or even most eligible films. As an unpaid, amateur film critic and blogger, I have seen 110 films that came out in 2015, and I shudder to think that there are people who decide awards winners who have seen fewer movies than I.
All of this also overlooks the obvious and well-documented systemic problems in Hollywood that eliminate opportunities for people of color to be creatively involved in a film project. Producers are reluctant to greenlight films without white leads or films not about white life. Sure, they’ll make the occasional exception, but only for films that are about race, making it more accessible to white people.
This issue renders both the lack of diversity in the Academy’s voting body and the lack of viewership among Academy voters completely ancillary. Even if the Academy’s voting body represented a 100-percent-accurate cross-section of the American populace, and even if every Academy member was forced to watch every eligible film before nominations and every nominated film before awards, no films with or about people of color can be nominated if no films with or about people of color are produced.
And this is the problem that can actually be solved, and this is the problem that people don’t want to talk about, because the Academy is an easier target. They do need reforms, but it’s not their job to seek out and highlight films by or about people of color; it’s their job (a job they often fail to accomplish) to seek out the best films, and, if the vast majority of the films being produced are not about nor featuring people of color, the results of their job are not going to meet anyone’s standard of diversity.
Take, for example, Reese Witherspoon. Best known for her portrayal of Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde,” she has also become a noted producer in recent years. She, along with her producing partner Bruna Papandrea, started the production company Pacific Standard, whose stated mission is to increase and better the portrayals of women in cinema. Their work is readily available, so I will not belabor their success. And all this is not to say that “if people of color want more representation, they should just do it themselves,” because that’s a cold, shallow argument that has no basis in practical reality. I bring this up to point out that Reese Witherspoon has her thumb on the pulse of the real problem affecting diversity in cinema, and assigning blame to easy scapegoats like Academy’s diversity will do nothing to increase awards diversity, and it shouldn’t.
I fail to see how changing the voting body, necessary as change may be, will result in more diverse awards recipients. If it does, then, skin color aside, we’re all terrible people.