Black Entertainment Television founder Robert L. Johnson weighed in on the furor surrounding the lack of minority nominees in this year’s Academy Awards race, suggesting the key to better outcomes in the future is encouraging both the movie studios and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to bring more minorities into their ranks.
Johnson did not comment directly on director Spike Lee’s call for a boycott of the Oscar broadcast on Feb. 28. Instead the BET founder, now chairman of RLJ Entertainment, laid out four reforms to improve diversity:
•Engage the studios to encourage the casting of more African-Americans in films with black themes. “For example, why were ‘Gladiator,’ starring Russell Crowe, or ‘Braveheart,’ starring Mel Gibson, both greenlit, but not films based on the true story of the African general Hannibal or the African chief and warrior Shaka Zulu?” Johnson asked, in a prepared statement. “If the answer is financial or there is a belief that there is a lack of cultural interest or identity in those stories, those issues need to be addressed with the studios.”
• Increase the number of voting members of the Academy by adding qualified minority individuals. Johnson said the new members need to demonstrate “sensitivity and knowledge of the creative process… equal to that of existing Academy voters.” He said the number of new minority members might be based on their percentage in the population or on the percentage of dollars minorities contributed to the box office. “The goal here is not to dilute an individual’s unique perspective as an Academy voter, whether they are diverse or not,” Johnson wrote, “but simply to increase diversity of voices and therefore choices.”
• Improve casting of minority actors and actresses in roles outside of black-themed films. “For example,” Johnson asked, “would films like ‘Pretty Woman’ or ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ [have] been less creative if the characters were interracial?”
• Encourage studio hiring of minorities in their creative and development departments, including executives with the power to greenlight films. Johnson said such changes in television had resulted in a number of Emmy nominations for minorities.