The post-Oscars attention may be on the epic flub that closed Sunday night’s 89th Academy Awards, when an envelope error meant “La La Land” was briefly, and incorrectly, named best picture, when the award belonged to “Moonlight.”
But the academy’s improved record on nominating and awarding diverse actors, filmmakers and movies should also get part of the spotlight. The question is whether it can stay in it.
After the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag caught on last year — the second year in a row when no actors of color were nominated — this year’s awards showed a marked increase in diverse films and diverse nominees. Mahershala Ali was the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar. Both supporting actor and supporting actress winners were black. The foreign film award went to an Iranian director.
The Washington Post’s Monica Hesse and Karen Heller took stock: “Sunday’s ceremony included the most diverse nominee list in history. Performers of color were represented in all of the acting categories. Three of the nine best-picture nominees told stories of African-American experiences in the United States, as did three of the five films nominated for best documentary. The winner for best animated feature, ‘Zootopia,’ was an allegory of racial profiling told via foxes and rabbits.”
Whether the shift results simply from a crop of films over the past year featuring richly complex and diverse characters, a successful social media campaign or any effort on the academy’s part to improve its membership is hard to know. Last year, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs issued a statement saying she was “both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion” among the 2016 nominees. “This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes,” she said, promising “dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership.”
A few days later, she did just that, with new rules that included an expansion of its board, changes that said membership in the group would no longer be a lifetime appointment and that inactive members would have their voting rights removed, and a campaign to recruit more diverse members. “The board’s goal is to commit to doubling the number of women and diverse members of the academy by 2020,” the statement read. Isaacs added that “the academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up.”
The academy’s changes were undoubtedly important. But the industry does also have to keep catching up: Diversity is more than a black-and-white issue. No women were nominated for categories such as directing this year. And some critics noted that real progress will only come when the film industry casts more minority actors in roles that aren’t defined by their race.
Earlier this month, a study from the University of Southern California’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative reported that just four percent of the 1,114 directors of top-grossing fictional films over the past decade have been female. Far more women of color than white males had just one top-grossing film to their name, a sign they may be given fewer professional opportunities as directors despite their success. Between 2007 and 2016, just three female directors on the list were black and just two were Asian, according to the report.
For Hollywood to keep making progress, changes in who gets a chance to win a golden statuette — and who makes those decisions — are key. But they also have to show that this is more than a one-year correction. To do that, they’ll need to keep growing the pool of films featuring diverse actors in complexly written roles and directed by women and people of color who are given a chance to lead big-budget or high-profile movies. That takes more than just changes in the rules, but leadership from the people who fund big films and who select the people to make them.