In January 2016, the hashtag that changed the awards landscape — #OscarsSoWhite — forced the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to evaluate not only their membership but the way Hollywood makes movies. Then came 2020, the year that tested the Hollywood industry from business operations to simple creative expressions. The mood among commenters on social media responses to analysis articles and predictions is often “Hollywood giving itself awards is not what this country needs” and/or “movies, what movies?”
Variety interviewed the heads and leaders of the four most important award shows: the Oscars, SAG, BAFTA and Golden Globes to see where their organizations are in regard to bringing diversity to their organizations and work there still is to be done. David Rubin, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris, Krishnendu Majumdar, Chair of BAFTA, Marc Samuelson, Chair of the Film Committee at BAFTA and Meher Tatna, former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. have all had different experiences over the past year. They’re acknowledging their shortcomings, but remain constant in their relentless pursuit of celebrating a year that had some of the best films and exciting filmmakers in decades.
“It’s our mandate to celebrate filmmaking,” says Rubin. “This is the year where people have truly realized the power of films to unite families, through quarantine and isolation, and connect people through stories.”
As the Academy announced, 366 feature films were submitted for consideration for best picture, the most in a given year since 1970. In September, AMPAS announced diversity and inclusion standards that will go into effect in 2024, when films must meet two out of four qualifications to contend for best picture. The response from industry experts and members was divided. “I think the benefit of time has allowed people to read beyond the headline, and the negative reactions, initially, came largely from those who didn’t read the large print, let alone the fine print,” Rubin says.
For Majumdar, who was named BAFTA Chair in June 2020 and is the first POC in that role in the 73-year history of the organization, he’s not blind to inequalities and the work the industry needs to do. In September, BAFTA published a review following the response to the 2020 film award nominations’ lack of diversity. More than 120 wide-ranging changes were introduced to address it, including in the acting, directing and outstanding British film categories. “It was a watershed moment for BAFTA,” Majumdar says. “We’ve had massive debates about what excellence is because it’s influenced by you guys, by Variety, or whoever is saying ‘hey, watch these films.”
Majumdar’s statement once again highlights the need for more diverse voices in entertainment journalism. A range of voices provides the opportunity to have a different perspective or a chance to highlight a feature that is under the radar. What he also highlights is the need for more allies in this.
It’s always important to note that the related discussion surrounding inclusivity is not only the job of the underrepresented. Majumdar adds that his counterpart Samuelson was on the frontlines with him, and all of his BAFTA colleagues, bringing about the changes. “We all have to engage,” says Samuelson. “Organizations like BAFTA and AMPAS are getting the brunt of people’s absolutely justifiable fury, frustration and disappointment, because they’re so public when it’s really about the industry. Nonetheless, the academies have to clean their side of the street.”
“We have the power to affect change,” says Carteris. “The industry has had an ‘inclusion problem’ where the long-term effect of not inviting various communities to the table to have a say has left giant gaps.”
The HFPA is coming off one of its most difficult years as an organization, not just related to the recent controversy surrounding the Los Angeles Times story regarding membership, but with personal tragedies. The 87-member group of international journalists lost four members this year, including Ray Arco, Jorge Camara, Lorenzo Soria and Jack Tewksbury. “All the members that we lost were really good friends of mine,” says Tatna. “It’s hard to talk about even now.”
When it comes to the representation of its membership, it’s something that Tatna, who was born in India, and the HFPA are well aware of. The group received heavy criticism for not nominating any Black films in the best picture (drama) lineup, and more recently, not having any Black journalists among its membership. “I get very hurt as a person of color myself that these accusations are flying around. I was an Indian woman and didn’t see many people that look like me on-screen in the ’80s and ’90s. We are aware of these problems and will have those conversations.”
Tatna acknowledges the positive impact of the Academy diversity outreach and points out that her female cousin in India, who works in visual effects, was invited to join. “It’s a systemic problem in the industry and I think more change needs to happen from the group up.”
Each of the major awards bodies have had their fair share of banner years, and obvious shortcomings. SAG has given its top award for cast ensemble to diverse makeups such as “Black Panther,” “Hidden Figures” and “Parasite” in recent years. For all the criticism BAFTA has received for Black actors like Denzel Washington never being recognized, the organization has also awarded best film to movies such as “Roma,” from Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. Despite all the odds stacked against it, only AMPAS and the HFPA agreed that Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” was the best picture of the year.
All the groups encourage their members to embrace every aspect of the movies, from various genres and types of films they watch for consideration. Rubin, who has a successful career as a casting director, says his taste of movies is evident from the two posters that hang in his office waiting room — 1996’s best picture winner “The English Patient” and 2008’s box office hit “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.”
There are still detractors against such change. On the eve of the Golden Globes and with Oscar voting opening March 5, observers are cautiously optimistic about seeing up to ten POC nominated in the Oscar acting categories, with possibilities including Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”), Chadwick Boseman (“Da 5 Bloods” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”), Dominique Fishback (“Judas and the Black Messiah”), Yeri Han (“Minari”), Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”), Delroy Lindo (“Da 5 Bloods”), Leslie Odom Jr (“One Night in Miami”), Steven Yeun (“Minari”), Yuh-Jung Youn (“Minari”) and Zendaya (“Malcolm & Marie”). Any number over seven would be record-setting.
We could see up to three women nominated in the best director category — Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”), Regina King (“One Night in Miami”) and Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”), including any dark horse entries such as Kelly Reichardt (“First Cow”). Any more than one would be a record. More directors of color could also enter the lineup, most notably Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”), Spike Lee (“Da 5 Bloods”), Shaka King (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) and George C. Wolfe (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”).
Seeing that many names in contention is significant, so is there still a need to sound the alarms over the year of cinema we are about to celebrate? Complacency is the enemy of progress, as is indifference. In a recent discussion with an AMPAS voter about how they were planning to vote and their thoughts on this banner year for diversity, the voter indicated the subject matter of some of the year’s films was hard to embrace, “It’s all too much. How badly do I have to feel about things that I had nothing to do with?”
This conversation underlines the fact that no matter how hard the Academy, BAFTA or any other awards groups work to institute change in their organizations, they’re likely to be met with defiance and a lack of compassion for a glaring omission we’ve seen for far too long. No matter what happens on Oscar nominations day on March 15, the cinematic community is better off with the likes of all the films available for us this year — whether they were recognized or not.
The Oscars will air on Sunday, April 25 with BAFTA taking place on April 11, the SAG Awards on April 4 and the Golden Globes on Sunday.