The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, better known as the voting body in charge of awarding the 88th Oscars this Sunday, has demonstrated a severe loss of legitimacy as an institution on the basis of its very purpose. The Academy claims to “honor outstanding artistic and scientific achievements” in motion pictures, evaluating hundreds of collective and individual candidates every year for the coveted “Academy Awards of Merit.” However, in the words of Milton Friedman, it would be a mistake “to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” While the Academy intends to assess and recognize “merit,” the results tell a different tale.
By looking at recent trends, not only in the outcomes of the nomination process itself, but in the nature of the Academy, the supposed “merit-based” institution and its evaluations of excellence and worth are severely skewed. While critiques of the Academy often stem from a detrimental lack of diversity, the homogeneity of the 87th and 88th Oscar nominees reflects a larger, and more critical lack of equal opportunity through representation and bias that is not, and will not, be easily remedied for the foreseeable future.
The Issue: #OscarsSoWhite
It’s no news that this year’s Oscar nominees are overwhelmingly white, particularly in the categories for best lead and supporting actors and actresses, of which all 20 nominees are white. Meanwhile, many actors of color who were considered high-potential choices for nomination were ultimately snubbed. These actors included Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation,” Will Smith in “Concussion,” Michael B. Jordan in “Creed,” and the relatively unknown cast of “Straight Outta Compton.”
Although many movies with directors and actors of color were nominated for awards, it was only for the achievements of their white counterparts. For example, “Straight Outta Compton,” a film starring black actors and led by black director F. Gary Gray, explored the world of hip-hop in late-1980s America, yet was nominated for only a single Oscar category (Best Original Screenplay), recognizing the work of the movie’s writers: self-described “white Jewish gay guy from Connecticut” Jonathan Herman and his white co-writer Andrea Berloff.
Similarly, “Creed,” with black director Ryan Coogler and black lead actor Michael B. Jordan, earned an Oscar nomination for white actor Sylvester Stallone in the category for Best Supporting Actor.
The blatant imbalance and tilted nomination results have not gone unnoticed. Outrage and protest arising from last year’s Oscars, which infamously snubbed the black director and black lead actor for the movie “Selma,” have carried over in 2016, especially on social media. Trending topics #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsStillSoWhite have drawn attention and gained momentum, and the Oscar nominees themselves have even spoken out in response to the controversy.
Diversity, and the Academy’s apparently lack of it, is not solely concentrated in race and ethnicity or in the acting field. Women moviemakers made up 19 percent of top-level filmmakers in 2015, yet make up a negligible percentage of actual nominees for filmmaking come awards-time.
The Academy’s Ongoing “Diversity” Problem
The core of this problem partly stems from the notorious homogeneity in race, gender, and age with the Academy itself. Academy members were found to be 93 percent white and 76 percent male, with an average age of 63, according to a 2013 Los Angeles Times survey of the 6,028-person membership.
Naturally, the demographics of the voting body and the correlating preferences for movie tastes influence what types of movies earn enough votes to be considered for nomination, and a largely elderly, white, male Academy possesses inherent selection bias. Furthermore, this is both a historical and self-perpetuating problem, as new Academy members are inducted through a process of sponsorship by existing members—sustaining the cycle of mostly white constituents in the Academy’s voting constituency, and the resulting nomination of mostly white film artists.
This issue has been acknowledged within the Academy at its most executive levels. Recently elected Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs stated, “This year, we all know there’s an elephant in the room. I have asked the elephant to leave.” Just over a month ago, the Academy’s Board of Governors unanimously voted in favor of “a sweeping series of substantive changes” to increase the “diversity” of the Academy’s makeup and voting procedures.
To resolve the issue at its root, the Academy is going to “supplement the traditional process” of sponsorship by existing members by “launching an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity.” Ultimately, the Academy has said they’re committed to “doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.”
Yet this decision requires thoughtful pause. An initiative aimed at increasing percentages of demographic numbers towards a specific numerical quota by a deadline should collectively ring a bell for anyone in the United States who has been keeping an eye on current Supreme Court cases. The Academy is, in essence, instituting a policy of affirmative action. To the Academy, achieving their goal is simply a matter of increasing numbers and percentages, which not only fails to address the bias phenomenon empirically, but also neglects the more prevailing issue at stake: maintaining its legitimacy.
A Matter of Equal Opportunity, Not Just Numbers
While the demographics of the Academy are certainly a prominent contributing factor to the uniformity of the Oscar nominees, trying to resolve the supposed numbers problem by doubling the amount of “diverse members” fails in two ways.
First, numbers simply do not lie. On the one hand, the “doubling” of the 24 percent women membership to 48 percent would bring the Academy very close to an equal split in terms of gender. But when the 7 percent non-white Academy members are boosted to 14 percent, an extreme supermajority of 86 percent white members will still remain. In an increasingly globalized world with international actors and directors engaging in collaborative films, a Western-centric and largely white body does not provide room for a truly representative voting body. Come the 2020 Oscar nomination season, the majority of Academy members will still hold a disproportionate degree of power in the democratic voting process and continue to skew the competition the same way it does today.
Second, the addition of more members of color and women does not change the fact that the Academy’s current members, which will make up the majority even after the 2020 projected goal, will continue to demonstrate what is, at its heart, an evident bias for white nominations over non-white. The continuing issue that will persist to the 2020 landmark and beyond is a matter of equal opportunity, not “diversity.” This is an extension of the evidence that the Academy as an institution actively prioritizes white nominations over non-white, not coincidentally, and negates its legitimacy as an institution.
The criteria for an Oscar nomination are clearly subjective, rather than based on box office earnings or public opinion through critic sites like Rotten Tomatoes. A general consensus is that the Academy and the Oscars work on a different metric of evaluation based on different perceptions of “art” in the media of motion picture.
However, the Academy has proven that it will still recognize movies starring and directed by people of color. “Art” and equal opportunity are not mutually exclusive, despite the past two years’ all-white actor Oscar ballots. It might seem that actors and directors of color are the exception, or that this is mere coincidence; however, this has been disproven by evidence of their “artistic merit.” Other film award organizations like the Screen Actors Guild (SAG Awards) and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globes, often seen as the precursor and indicator of the later Oscar nominees) have recognized the very same actors of color who’ve been snubbed at the Academy Awards.
To this effect, the cast of “Straight Outta Compton” was nominated for Outstanding Cast Performance in the SAG Awards, and Will Smith was nominated for “Concussion” as Best Actor in the Golden Globes. Idris Elba was not only nominated for Best Supporting Actor in the Golden Globes, but even won Best Supporting Actor in the SAG Awards.
Whether the actors of color for the feature films of the past year are as deserving of the awards in Sunday’s Oscars as their white counterparts is really not as debatable as the Academy made it seem. They possess the necessary merit. They have simply been denied equal opportunity, which runs deeper than numbers and diversity. It forms the foundation of the democratic process, of fair and equal voting privileges, that represent the views of the body being judged.
Many would say that, in the end, #OscarsSoWhite and the trend throughout the Academy’s 88 years of offering nominations to disproportionately white actors and directors is simply a reflection of the film industry in general, rather than an issue solely concentrated in the Academy. But while it is true that Hollywood itself carries a bias in casting and subject matter that influences the field of motion picture as a whole, the Academy Awards set the standard for bias each year. The Oscars by name carry so much prestige because they are perceived as “merit-based” accolades—bragging rights for any actor, filmmaker, or other contributor to the film industry to tote around as validation of their talent and abilities. This, in turn, determines casting and directing choices for both Oscar-winners and those perceived as Oscar “potentials” for the next year—as Sunday’s nominees for 2015 indicate, the “potentials” for 2016 might be seen as white.
The exclusion and denial of recognition to film industry professionals of color is certainly a cyclical problem, but it all starts with the Academy. As a result, resolving the preconceptions and stereotypes of Hollywood hopefuls requires the reigning authority of the Academy to reevaluate its views and notions of how it assesses skill and ability, not just adjusting the numbers of its makeup.
The Academy holds the power, more power than it may realize, to unlocking equal access to opportunity and recognition for all actors in the future. It simply needs to figure out how to wield it.
Image source: Flickr