Oscars: With Massive Invite List, Academy Redirects Diversity Debate

Chadwick Boseman
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This year’s robust class of Academy invitees is an exciting first step in addressing the industry’s diversity problem. Yet it’s one already being criticized in some quarters, with the rage pendulum having swung from “too exclusive!” to “too inclusive!”

Certain names, whether they made their mark in television or trigger a “too soon” response, are already being targeted. But you can’t really point a finger at presumably dubious choices while acting like the bar for inclusion hasn’t been notably low for long stretches of the Academy’s history, stretches some might say have led to the org’s currently problematic social makeup.

You also can’t argue that TV-heavy resumes ought to rule out inclusion. TV is where the opportunities are. Should working artists with the kind of worldview sorely needed in the Academy really be punished for that? Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs long ago said the org “is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up.” What did you expect?

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But these arguments are really beside the point. It’s silly to hold your measuring stick for merit against the Academy’s, though it is entirely fair to note that the Academy has pretty much shaken off the onus of owning the #OscarsSoWhite scandal in one fell swoop, and that that is, by definition, public relations.

With the inclusion of 683 names (the most ever by more than double), 283 of them “international members” from 59 different countries, the Academy has opted for a big splash. But they also want to make sure you understand the metrics that make it more like a drop in the bucket.

The new class is 46% female, 41% people of color, and the Academy has very explicitly laid out what that means to its membership bottom line — i.e., not much. Overall female representation climbed by a mere two percentage points, while people of color moved three percent.

Part of that, it should be noted, is because this was less an infusion than an acceleration. After all, the number of white males granted entry this year far outpaces any other year. But regardless of that fact, it would be difficult to point to too many names representative of “diversity” that ought to be invited at this point.

With that in mind, let’s flash forward to January. What happens if…

Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation,” despite a big Sundance splash and a year-long campaign of educational screenings and appearances, fails to make the Academy’s best picture nominations list. Parker and his cast, including buzzed contenders like Aunjanue Ellis and Aja Naomi King, don’t crack the acting ranks. Yet another film proves it can’t transcend the Park City bubble.

“Moonlight” — an indie from Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”) with a heartfelt push by A24, hot off the success of “Room” — slides out as well. Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, they never quite break out beyond Gotham and Spirit Awards recognition.

Despite a swell of top notices out of Cannes, Ruth Negga misses the cut for Jeff Nichols’ low-key “Loving.” Will Smith, in a comedy from the director of soft-but-pleasing fare that never translates to awards, is passed over for “Collateral Beauty” (sorry, Jada).

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Maybe Denzel Washington’s “Fences” catches a stride on the back of revered source material, with Viola Davis and Washington himself turning up lead acting notices — but maybe not. Maybe Paramount does what it can to balance a big slate that also includes films from Martin Scorsese, Robert Zemeckis and Denis Villeneuve in addition to Washington’s adaptation, but can only do so much.

(All of this before getting to the fact that females end up grossly, as always, underrepresented in the directing, writing, cinematography, sound and visual effects categories.)

I haven’t seen any of these films, but I already empathize with them greatly. The spotlight could not be harsher and the expectation could not be more loaded. If they make the Oscar cut, some will no doubt argue it comes at the cost of a meritocracy. “The Affirmative Action Oscars.” If they don’t, the Academy is somehow yet again to blame — or at least that’s the talking point corpse the media will attempt to reanimate.

If indeed next year’s list of Oscar nominees is deemed far too beige once again, despite the efforts of the Academy to change its internal makeup, then will the crosshairs finally fall on the root of the problem? Will the idea that the industry itself is the actual #SoWhite culprit take hold? Or will we play the hashtag game all over again?

I’d say this was a pretty definitive “not it” from Isaacs’ Academy.

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  1. jonnyrp says:

    Oscars are a politic thing anyway, the contenders and winners doesn’t matter since its got little to do with talent. But why do i feel i’m reading a problem or sad thing when i read “After all, the number of white males granted entry this year far outpaces any other year”?

    Will one day all that diversity debates start to exclude white males? I do believe we’re part of the community too, after all.

    • So you believe the white male perspective is endangered? Interesting.

      • jonnyrp says:

        No. Not at all. But i’m wondering IF some groups, which claim that they weren’t well represented at the Oscars or in nominated films for competition would notice or recognize the lack of white men representation at these awards shows. Should it ever happen? Will it ever happen? I’m not in a position to tell for sure. With all that happened lately (Trump’s election for instance and all the criticism) i know that the Hollywood heads and machine seems to be male dominated. But what becomes of the “white man” now that women have decided to start women driven groups to produce, write and direct films? I’m not against the idea but can’t be convinced that no woman will ever discriminate the opposite sex. will harassement stop? Will we men never ever be described and used as slaves and object of desire in women driven films?

        And that was also my point in the previous post. The last years, the industry’s been putting more and more emphasis on sexism and racism to promote everything (Including the biggest award shows). That if it should ever happen that white men undergo the same discrimination both in films and at the Oscars for one year only, would anyone notice? And would that ever be a case that Chris Rock and/or one of is stand up peers dare to put up front during the Oscars?

        I don’t think the white male perspective is that endangered at the moment, but who knows? With the pace we’ve seen everything sliding many debates this year?

  2. Ken says:

    To invoke Denzel Washington in your piece about inclusion and diversity seems, well, dumb. Mr. Washington has been an A-List star for years, been nommed many times for many popular mainstream movies, and won 2 Oscars. He is a man of colour, of course…but he transcends labeling. If he doesn’t get nominated for “Fences”, for him it’ll be “Oh well, gave it a good shot, I’ll try again next year.” Cheers.

  3. Al says:

    “currently problematic social makeup.”

    Hmmmmmmm.

    • Don’t be shy.

      I don’t think it’s controversial in any world to note in passing that a group is, by its own admission, lacking in demographic representation (8% people of color).

      The bigger conversation, which we’re attempting to stoke here, is what that means vis a vis the industry at large.

  4. Michael Anthony says:

    The problem has always been the fault of the studios and filmmakers. Make films of note, and perhaps Oscar will shine your way. But Will Smith for example, has made some great films that made huge money. Only one if them was truly Oscar material. He was nommed. Concussion was a mess, but Jada had her tantrum and the Oscar board gave in. My fear is they’ll nominate awful films, just to show inclusiveness. Like a Kevin Hart comedy.

  5. Mary says:

    You can’t make everyone happy. Every one in the “business” should know this. It’s their club, let them do what they want with it. They’re smart they’ll figure it out. Watch the show if you want or don’t.

  6. tlsnyder42 says:

    We have an Affirmative Action President and another Affirmative Action Democratic Candidate who clearly were/are never really Ready for Primetime. Why NOT have an Affirmative Action Oscars??? This whole issue is stupid. Oscar is stupid to begin with from the beginning. Cary Grant NEVER won an Oscar, for God’s sake!

  7. Ben Hunter says:

    The problem was NEVER an internal one, inside of The Academy, but an external one.

  8. Drew Gars says:

    Good.

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