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Oscars: With Massive Invite List, Academy Redirects Diversity Debate

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?

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).

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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