In 1929, the Oscars were put in place to celebrate the best in the film industry both front of and behind the camera. The film industry has been changing rapidly thanks to technology like computer-generated imagery and motion capture. The internet has changed the face of film distribution and advertisement, so that films are now more universal and accessible than ever. Despite all these major advancements, one aspect of the film industry has been slow to change: racial inclusion.
For the second year in a row, not one minority actor was nominated for an Academy Award.
“Selma” director Ava DuVernay has been one of the pioneers for the pro-inclusion movement. She recently expressed her preference for the word “inclusion” over “diversity” stating that “It’s a medicinal word that has no emotional resonance, and this is a really emotional issue.” I also believe that the word “diversity” implies that the best films have already been chosen and they all just happen to predominantly white. That is not the issue.
This Oscars’ season had the potential to be a banner year for minorities in the film industry. The casts of “Straight Outta Compton,” “Creed” and “Beasts of No Nation” were among some of the most promising films this year that featured minority casts. These films’ positive performances among critics and in other awards this season hints that the problem is within the Academy itself. This year at the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards the casts of “Beasts of No Nation” and “Straight Outta Compton” were both nominated. Idris Elba was also nominated, and won the actor, for his portrayal of the Commandant in “Beasts of No Nation”. And this was only on the film side. In the television nominations, Queen Latifah (“Bessie”), Idris Elba (“Luther”), and Uzo Aduba (“Orange is the New Black”) took home awards and Rami Malek was nominated for his main role in “Mr. Robot.” Much of the backlash towards this #OscarsSoWhite issue, suggests that perhaps minorities have just not been performing as well as their white counterparts. However, it is obvious that minorities have been performing excellently in respected films and television shows. So why are the Oscars’ still so far behind? The issue lies in voting committees.
The Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists is the entertainment labor union that runs the SAG awards. To be a member of SAG-AFTRA, or to receive your SAG card, is to take your first role as an industry professional. For example, Jennifer Lawrence got her SAG card after acting in an MTV promo for “My Super Sweet 16”. Just like that you are a member. Then, you must pay your yearly dues and remain an active in your field so you can vote for nominated actors in the SAG awards. How are these actors nominated? Simple. A nominating committee of 2,200 active SAG members are drawn randomly each year and cannot serve again for another eight years. They watch the films submitted for consideration and choose who should be nominated. Then, the active SAG members vote on winners and they are announced at the award show. This method is orderly, fair and democratic. Actors voting for other actors on a night devoted to the best performances in film and television.
The Oscars employ a similar voting system. The Academy has two rounds of voting, in the first you may only vote within your profession, actors vote for actors, writers for writers, in that fashion to create a list of nominees. In the second round, you may vote across departments to choose the winner in each category. The difference lies in who is voting. It is true that the Academy is about 94 percent white with a median age of 62, but many of these members have also been Academy members for years, while not being active in the industry. By allowing this to happen, the Oscars have been employing the opinions of people who are out of touch, and might not be able to appreciate films like “Straight Outta Compton” which chronicled the struggles of the hip-hop group N.W.A as they rose to fame out of Southern Los Angeles.
Now, in a statement released by the Academy, all members have a ten year voting period, which can only be renewed if the person has been active in the industry. After three ten year voting periods, or by receiving an Oscar nomination, an Academy member will have earned lifetime voting rights. If a member is inactive for more than ten years or has not been nominated for an Oscar, they will be given Emeritus status, meaning that they will remain in The Academy, but will not vote. These terms are all retroactive. The Academy will also be making a global effort to find new members as well as making adjustments to the organization’s leadership.
The efforts made by The Academy this year aim to make the Oscars more inclusive for minorities and women by taking after the membership methods of SAG-AFTRA. According to the Oscars’ site, they strive to “double number of diverse members by 2020.”
I’m glad that the Academy has finally decided to makes some changes towards a more honest lineup of celebrated performers. However, I think they could be even stricter, not allowing people to vote between categories in the second round of voting. Overall, I think the Academy is taking much needed steps to become a more prestigious version of the SAG awards, which have recently proven to be the more inclusive and esteemed of acting awards.