After a year of upheaval, France’s Cesar Awards will host its 46th edition under new leadership on Friday with more diversity and parity within its 4,292-strong membership. Across the administration board and general assembly, however, there’s still a dearth of Black creatives.
More women and visible minorities have joined the ranks of Cesar Awards’ voting members since the arrival of a new president, Veronique Cayla, the former boss of the Franco-German public culture channel Arte France, and vice chair Eric Toledano, the popular co-director of smash-hit “The Intouchables,” in late September.
The annual awards, which are France’s equivalent of the Oscars, reformed its operating model and corporate leadership last year following an industry-wide revolt that led to the resignation of long-time Cesar Academy president Alain Terzian, along with the rest of the 21-member board of governors.
Joining the org just six months ago, Cayla and Toledano were on a mission to revamp the Academy from within and organize the Cesar ceremony, taking into account the myriad of uncertainties and difficulties induced by the pandemic.
In the little time they’ve had, the pair’s greatest achievement is the gender parity reached within the administration board of the Association for the Promotion of Cinema (APC), the organization that oversees the Cesar Academy.
The 42 reps elected by voting members include a man and a woman representing 21 different fields, from actors to crew members, screenwriters, directors and producers. Among the changes that were made under this new leadership was the revoking of historic members of the administration board, notably Roman Polanski, whose best director win at last year’s Cesar Awards with “An Officer and a Spy” sparked a massive backlash. Previously, members of the board did not have to be elected: they were part of the APC either because they were founding members, were appointed or they were an Oscar winner.
On the downside, however, the new board, as well as the general assembly — which was expanded from 45 to 162 members — is still predominantly white, with the exception of a handful of visible minorities. There are no Black members on either board.
Marie-Ange Luciani, producer of Robin Campillo’s compelling AIDS activist drama “BPM (Beats Per Minute),” was tasked to oversee a committee whose mission is to bring more diversity, women and youth across the membership. She says the near absence of people of color on the board and general assembly could be due to the fact that very few applied to become members this year.
“One of the things we’re working on is to revive the image of the Cesar Awards so that more people will want to become part of it; I think too many folks didn’t want to have anything to do with it because it seemed like an old fashion boy’s club and the controversy last year made it worse,” says Luciani, who adds that the Cesar Awards will also be more proactive in reaching out to non-white talent and industry players to encourage them to apply to become members.
Luciani says the committee she oversees brought in 450 new members by inviting filmmakers of short films that had been pre-selected over the last five years, as well as promising actors and directors of first films. Of these 450 new members, 75% are women, bringing the share of women who are voting members to 35%, on par with last year.
In addition to these, 2020 Cesar award winners also became members. Among them were Ladj Ly, whose “Les Miserables” won best film among other accolades, and Lyna Khoudri, who won best female newcomer for her role in “Papicha.”
“We still have a long way to go and there should be way more diversity within the 4,292 voting members, but even in French society, there is a lot of work to do to make it more inclusive,” says Luciani, who notes the Cesar Awards are planning to welcome even more members in the next year.
Although the committee doesn’t include a person of color, Luciani says the org consulted with 50:50 Future, a diversity and inclusion training and consultancy group, to get some ideas about ways to make improvements going forward.
“2021 is a transition year for the Cesar Awards,” she says. “We inherited from an institution that was nearly archaic, so we managed to get a lot of work done in very little time since last fall.”
Aïssa Maïga (pictured), one of the few major Black actors in France, says more could have been done for the 2021 awards. The actor notes that it was crucial for the leaders of the Cesar Awards to lobby potential non-white candidates to join the boards.
“When a group of people has been excluded for a long time, you need to make a conscious effort to make calls and lobby as much as possible to bring democracy and inclusion,” says Maïga, who ruffled feathers at last year’s César Awards when she took the stage and counted aloud the handful of Black people in the audience.
This year’s nominations include nods to two Black filmmakers, Maimouna Doucouré with “Cuties” and Jean-Pascal Zadi with “Tout Simplement Noir” in the best first film category.
Zadi, who stars in his film as a struggling Black actor trying to organize a protest for Black people in France, is nominated for best male newcomer. “Cuties” star Fathia Youssouf, 14, is also nominated for best female newcomer. This year’s Cesar Awards changed the eligibility rules for the newcomer category to include actors under 18.
But the main acting categories are consistently lacking talent of color. In fact, the Cesar Awards have honored only a handful of Black actors in the last 40 years.
“It seems that the best newcomer category is giving many opportunities to talent regardless of their skin color, mostly in films that are socially engaged,” says Maïga.
“Then, in the best actor category, we’ve had Omar Sy with ‘Intouchables’ and last year, Roschdy Zem, a French actor of Moroccan descent, with ‘Oh Mercy!,’ but when it comes to non-white actresses there seems to be a dearth of opportunities which reflects the way castings are carried out,” adds Maïga, who recently co-directed with Isabelle Simeoni the documentary “Regard Noir” about the lack of representation of Black actors in France, Brazil and the U.S.
“In France, non-white actresses don’t have access to the same roles as white actresses and skin color is a determining factor,” declares Maïga.
Making the Cesar Awards more diverse on the board level and then seeing those changes reflected in nominations will require the industry to reform itself.
“Solutions include opening up all casting to people of color; bringing up more diversity in crews, creative pools and among decision-makers; being able to use data and statistics to get the true picture of inequalities and fix them; and incentivizing greater inclusion [with] financial bonuses on film budgets,” suggests Maïga.