LOS ANGELES, January 24, 2016—The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) made a big announcement Friday in response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. It is an ambitious, knee jerk reaction with no guarantee that the desired outcome will actually be accomplished.
The Board of Governors voted unanimously to make “crucial changes to diversify the membership.” The key part of those changes is the elimination of automatic lifelong membership. Membership will now be set for 10-year terms, and renewal terms will be contingent upon how much the member works in the industry during that time.
The Academy also plans to “scour the industry for more diverse members to recruit,” and to double its female and non-white member counts by 2020.
Hollywood loves drama and grandstanding, and the whole #OscarsSoWhite is both.
Since this overblown controversy was started by Jada Pinkett-Smith and Spike Lee, we’ve heard from white and black actors expressing their solidarity with a boycott of the Academy Awards. It does not seem to matter that this year’s host is black comedian Chris Rock, or that black producer Reginald Hudlin (House Party, BeBe’s Kids) is the show runner.
The lack of Black acting nominees proves that the Academy is racist and must be changed.
Black actors, and Academy members Don Cheadle and David Oyelowo, along with black actresses (also Academy members) Whoopi Goldberg, Viola Davis, and Lupita Nyong’o have weighed on the side vowing that change needs to occur. Davis has been nominated twice for best supporting actress and best actress, and in this writer’s opinion, was robbed both times.
When asked at the Elle Women in Television event to comment on the controversy, Davis declared “It’s not the Oscars. The Oscars are a symptom of a much greater issue and that’s the issue of the Hollywood movie-making system. How many movies are being made that have this in it,” she asks as she points to the color on her skin. “More films need to be made where we can shine. That’s the bottom line. The opportunity does not match the talent. There needs to be more opportunity, that’s just it. And you have to invest in it.”
Looking at the list of nominees since 2001 would seem to dispute that notion. That year, both Denzel Washington and Halle Berry took home Oscars for best actor in “Training Day” and best actress in “Monster’s Ball.” Will Smith was nominated that same year for “Ali,” followed in 2002 by Queen Latifah’s best supporting actress nomination for “Chicago.”
For 8 years, the nominations have included black actors, actresses, and writers, and blacks have taken home awards—often by beating out other blacks for the prize.
In 2004, Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman won best actor and best supporting actor prizes for “Ray” and “Million Dollar Baby,” respectively. “Hotel Rwanda’s” Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo were nominated for best actor and actress, and Djimon Honsou got a best supporting nod for “In America.”
Terrence Howard was nominated for best actor in 2005’s “Hustle and Flow,” while Forrest Whitaker took home the prize in 2006’s “Last King of Scotland.” Jennifer Hudson also took home a statuette for best supporting actress in “Dreamgirls,” while Will Smith (“Pursuit of Happyness”), Eddie Murphy (“Dreamgirls”), and Djimon Honsou (“Blood Diamond”) were nominated in the best actor and supporting categories.
In 2007, the legendary Ruby Dee was nominated for best supporting actress in “American Gangster,” followed in 2008 with Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson nominated in that same category for “Doubt,” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
Morgan Freeman was nominated for best actor in 2009’s “Invictus,” and Gabourey Sidibe for best actress in “Precious.” Mo’Nique took home the best supporting actress prize for “Precious” as did black screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher for best adapted screenplay.
While 2010 was a year with no black nominees, there were no cries about being ignored, Twitter hashtags or calls for boycotts. How refreshing.
Five years later, one wonders what happened to change this?
In 2011, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis were nominated for best supporting and best actress in “The Help,” and Spencer took home the statue. 2012 saw Denzel Washington nominated for “Flight,” and 2013’s “12 Years A Slave” rendered best actor and best supporting actress nominations for Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o.
Nyong’o, and “12 Year’s” best adapted screenplay winner John Ridley (also black) took home the prize.
This is a clear pattern of black talent and projects which gave rise to more nominations and more wins. The #OscarsSoWhite controversy is focused on the acting awards, but two black men winning adapted screenplay proves that creating opportunities through polished and creative writing is a crucial step in the process.
If you don’t have a well-written script, you don’t have a project to greenlight. Maybe part of this push for diversity should include getting the work of black writers and producers past development hell.
Spike Lee, Lee Daniels, and Tyler Perry notwithstanding, what we need are more Ava Duvernays, Shonda Rhimes, and Rhonda Barakas.
What is also clear is the failure to acknowledge the progress already gained in the film industry. Current media coverage presents a narrative whose theme is that in the last 14 years no progress has been made, so something radical needs to happen. Like boycotts and protests. As we have already seen from the #BlackLivesMatter crowd, all this kind of activity creates is divisiveness rather than diversity.
The AMPAS changes offer no guarantee of improving diversity, but may potentially diminish the quality of nominations and work against blacks and other minorities rather than for them.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, the A-list black talent mentioned above won’t suffer much. It is the up-and-coming actors who will bear the brunt of what will follow. So, if you think it is tough to get nominated now, just wait until the diversity demands infect the process.