Why Diversifying the Oscar Voting Base Clearly Wasn’t Enough (Column)

As the nominations for the 92nd Oscars have shown us, the industry and the Motion Picture Academy have a problem substantially moving the needle on diversity and inclusion.

In the last few months, Jennifer Lopez, Eddie Murphy, Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Lupita Nyong’o and Jamie Foxx have received accolades at awards shows and from critics groups, but Academy voters failed to nominate any of them. Except for Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”), all of the acting nominees are white.

Female directors like Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”), Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”), Lorene Scafaria (“Hustlers”), Melina Matsoukas (“Queen & Slim”), Alma Har’el (“Honey Boy”) and Marielle Heller (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) have received praise for being leaders of a more diverse generation of filmmakers. Even so, all of the nominated directors are men.

It’s been four years since Hollywood promised to change in the aftermath of #OscarsSoWhite, but here we are.

So what happened?

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Sure, the Academy lived up to its promise to diversify and grow its membership. Last year, 50% of new members were women and 29% were people of color. Today, 16% of the nearly 9,000 total members are people of color, compared with just 8% in 2015.

But something’s still very broken, inside and outside the Academy.

“There’s still progress to be made,” says Academy governor-at-large DeVon Franklin. While he is “excited” by the year’s crop of nominees, “there’s still a ways to go as an industry to make the change that I think will make everyone feel like they have a seat at the table.”

Diversifying the Academy wasn’t enough.

The Academy must take the lead on making sure the Oscars aren’t straight and white. All eyes are on the association because it’s responsible for the film industry’s most important night of the year.

Just days before the Oscar noms were announced, BAFTA said that it would review its voting process after no actors of color were nominated for its film awards. The Academy has to do the same. If a change needs to be made, the Academy won’t know what that is unless it takes a thorough inventory of how votes are cast.

The organization also must review the directors branch. “Little Women” earned six nominations, but Gerwig wasn’t nominated for directing. Perhaps there is a reasonable explanation, but again, we won’t know what it is unless an assessment is made.

When queried about what the Academy is doing to further address the issue, Franklin says, “You’re asking a great question, and I don’t have the answer to that yet.”

He adds that the Academy brass is hunkering down to determine the next steps.

“We’ve been taking a series of high-level meetings to really, once and for all, figure out what we as an industry need to do to solve it. It’s complex. There’s not one answer suits all. But we’re committed to finding a solution.”

He says the industry also has to come together as a whole and identify ways in which it can bring about systemic change.

“We actually have to put into practice some specific things that will help move the needle in ways where we not only increase numbers but we also increase consideration,” Franklin says. “And that’s going to be a cultural shift. It’s going to be a corporate shift. It’s going to be a practical shift. But all of these things are going to have to work together in order for it to be the change we really want to be.”

Simply greenlighting films by women and people of color isn’t enough either. Studios have to make sure they support these films from the beginning of the race through the entire awards season. The work can’t be left to the smaller studios like A24 and Neon. A24 did what it could for “The Farewell,” but imagine if the movie had the same marketing budget as “The Irishman” or an awards campaign like that of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” (Of course, big-money campaigns don’t necessarily yield awards. No matter how much Netflix threw at “The Irishman,” it was shut out of the Golden Globes on awards night.)

“The work that needs to be done and the work that’s going to matter is the work that is done day to day, that goes well beyond the Oscars and well beyond the telecast,” Franklin says. “I think a telecast can’t actually produce the change. I think it’s the grind.”

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