Harris: The Academy’s Response to #OscarsSoWhite Is Huge — But There’s No Guarantee It Will Work

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Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) Photo: VALERIE MACON/Getty Images

Welcome to Hollywood Signs, a new monthly column by Mark Harris.

On the morning of Tuesday, March 15, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ attempt to solve its diversity problem was interrupted by ... a diversity problem. Even as the AMPAS Board of Governors — 51 people (49 of them white) elected to represent the Academy’s 17 branches — was meeting to formalize and fine-tune the reforms announced after the #OscarsSoWhite protest moved from hashtag to headline in January, a new issue was exploding. Two dozen Academy members of Asian descent, ranging from two-time Best Director winner Ang Lee to actress Sandra Oh, had signed and made public a letter protesting what they called a “tone-deaf … tasteless and offensive” set of jokes on this year’s Oscars telecast, including one in which host Chris Rock used a couple of young Asian children as a sight gag and a punch line. (After introducing them as PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants, Rock said, “If anyone is upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phones — also made by these kids.”)

After issuing a pro forma apology that got a verdict of “Not good enough” on social media (admittedly, that is social media’s favorite verdict about everything, which doesn’t mean it was incorrect), the Academy quickly agreed to meet with the signatories face to face. And by the end of the day, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the quiet, politic, and very determined woman at the center of what has become one of the major pivot points in Academy history, had gotten the governors to sign off on a set of reforms that, if they work, will literally and figuratively change the face of the Academy.

This is no small accomplishment. Isaacs, a longtime publicity executive for Paramount and New Line, was first elected in 2013, one year after a Los Angeles Times study of Academy demography showed it to be even more overwhelmingly white than its detractors had imagined. Some Academy-watchers greeted that report with a shrug — whaddya gonna do, the Oscars only reflect industry inequities, it was ever thus. Isaacs did not; she viewed the information not as an intractable misfortune but as a call to action. The 35th president in AMPAS’s 89-year history, she is the first person of color to be elected to the post, and only the third woman. The first, Bette Davis, quit angrily in 1941 after just weeks on the job, disgusted to realize that she had been given the gig as a mere figurehead. Isaacs is in no danger of suffering a similar fate.

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On paper, this should not have been the year that a controversy over the overwhelming whiteness of either the Academy or its nominees flared up. Initiatives to increase the percentage of women and people of color in the votership were put in place a few years ago, and were already reflected in the annual list of invitees that the Academy makes public every spring. Last year, for instance, roughly 30 percent of newly invited actors and directors were nonwhite, a big change for an organization that, as of 2012, was 94 percent white. In addition, there was no single galvanizing omission this year. The highest-profile movies made by and with people of color that were left out — Creed and Straight Outta Compton (each relegated to a single nomination for their white participants) and Beasts of No Nation — were all considered by Oscars handicappers to be close calls. (Perhaps it should be noted that the demographic makeup of handicappers is, if anything, whiter than that of the Academy.) And it’s odd that so much wrath was focused on the Academy’s acting nominees since, notwithstanding two straight years of wall-to-wall whiteness, the Actors branch has historically been more inclusive than any other. (Over the years, 64 black actors have been nominated and 15 have won; by contrast, the Directors branch has nominated only three black directors and four women.)

But cultural issues don’t tend to hit the boiling point when optimum laboratory conditions suggest they “should.” They explode because they have to, and, whether because Black Lives Matter had gained immense cultural currency and urgency over the previous 12 months or because the issue of diversity in the movie industry as a whole had moved to the center of the conversational agenda, this was the moment. The resulting fury hit the Academy hard and fast.

And, remarkably, an institution not previously known for either speed or transparency has demonstrated, in response, an unusual degree of both. Just days after the nominees were announced, Isaacs, using a career’s worth of public-relations training in how to strike the right tone, issued a statement saying that while the Academy would “celebrate … the wonderful work of this year’s nominees,” she found herself “heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion … it’s time for big changes.”

She wasn’t kidding. Within days, working in conjunction with the Academy’s sometimes-polarizing CEO Dawn Hudson, Isaacs had overseen a meeting of the Board of Governors at which three initiatives were advanced. The first was the appointment of three new governors to rectify the lack of diversity on the board itself (those governors, announced this week, are the African-American producer Reginald Hudlin, who oversaw this year’s Oscars show, El Norte screenwriter Gregory Nava, and Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3 director Jennifer Yuh Nelson). The second was the formalization of a push to double the number of women and minorities in the Academy over the next five years. And the third — the tough one — was to move Academy members who have long been inactive in the movie business to non-voting status. All past winners and nominees would get to keep their voting rights, as would any voter who had worked on movies at least once in three consecutive ten-year periods after becoming members. The rest would become — a kind word — “emeritus.”

It was this last move that sparked a furious public backlash from a handful of members. Over the following weeks, The Hollywood Reporter ran more than a dozen op-eds on the subject, most by voters who felt irate or affronted. A documentarian named Milton Justice used his piece to lash out sneeringly (and one year late) at the black director and leading man of Selma. Bill Mumy, the child star of TV’s Lost in Space who was invited to join AMPAS in 1975 but has worked mainly in TV for the last 30 years, accused the Academy of giving in “to a handful of whiners.” Onetime executive and producer David Kirkpatrick cried ageism, as did many others, and John Van Vliet, a member of the Visual Effects branch, labeled the decision “a momentary appeasement of the mob.” Writers branch member Stephen Geller even wondered, “What Academy, historically, ever has dealt with contemporary realities? ... That has never been its role.”

Tonally, the pieces ranged from “Don’t listen to those people, they’re just sore losers” to “I still have value” to “This isn’t fair.” Many of the angry voters noted, with justification, the danger of stereotyping a group of people as anti-diversity just because they’re older and/or inactive in the industry. But the language and rhetoric some of them used as they fumed about “political correctness” and suggested the whole thing was an overreaction to bad publicity made it clear that those who just don’t get it — people who continue to equate diversity with a lowering of standards and insist that racial bias plays no role in an almost entirely white organization — constitute a real and longstanding Academy demographic. On Tuesday, Isaacs and the Board agreed to tweak some of their revised standards for voting: A member’s 30 years of active work don’t need to have taken place entirely after the invitation to join (thus, Angie Dickinson, in movies from 1955 through 2004, is saved, which seems only fair!). The Academy reiterated that an appeals process will be available to members, and branches will have latitude to set their own standards for “active,” the definitions of which may be different for, say, an actor, a working writer whose scripts haven’t resulted in recent onscreen credits, and a studio executive. However, when all is said and done, a few hundred of the Academy’s 6,000-plus members will likely have to surrender their voting rights.

Some might argue that the anger aimed at Isaacs and the Board over these changes represents the purest form of privilege — a body of white people used to holding power and unwilling either to loosen its grip on it or to imagine that it should. But I think a sense of powerlessness may have had more to do with it. The voting initiative exposed a massive fault line in the Academy — a divide between members who were invited to join because of their achievement and those for whom being invited to join was the achievement. For the latter group — which is among the least active in the industry but the most present at Academy screenings and events — this decision threatened to add insult to the injury of not being able to get work, or the injury of the suggestion that a career in television is a step down, or the injury of losing the certainty that, at least when you fill out your ballot, you have exactly the same impact as Steven Spielberg or George Clooney.

Feeling wounded is understandable. And certainly, the decision to yoke a rule change that had been bruited about within the Academy for years to the issue of diversity conflated two problems: how to make the membership more diverse, and how to clean up a voting roster that reflected decades of lax, friend-of-a-friend admission policies from the 1950s through the 1990s, when you could get in because a couple of people liked you. (That mostly ended in the early 2000s, when the Academy started making its annual invitee lists public.) As it stands, AMPAS is overstuffed with people — not just or even primarily actors, but publicists, executives, documentarians — who, in some cases, voluntarily left the industry for other professions long ago (one of the Hollywood Reporter op-ed writers is a former studio PR VP turned psychotherapist) or who, on the basis of their film achievements, never should have been invited to join at all. Printing their names would be cruel, but for the curious, here’s a partial membership roll; cross-checking it against an IMDb credits list is eye-opening.)      

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This is, in some ways, a challenging moment for the Academy. Ratings for the Oscars ceremony aren’t what they used to be — this year’s broadcast hit an eight-year low. That slippage shouldn’t matter, since with around 35 million viewers, the Oscars are still, by far, the highest-rated non-sports show of any kind during the TV season. But it does, because the Academy is deep into a $350 million, years-in-the-making attempt to expand its brand by building a museum, and ad revenue from the ABC telecast represents a major chunk of its business plan. Given that, Academy-on-the-precipice stories have become such a journalistic norm that it’s now an easy go-to to portray it as an institution perpetually in crisis and either over- or underreacting.

Those within the Academy who are opposed to the diversity changes traffic in that rhetoric as well. In the wake of AMPAS’s decision to go forward with the new initiatives, there have been dark mutterings about ageism lawsuits. The actor James Woods seethed on Twitter about unelected governors joining the ranks, and one trade report passed along the notion that members who feel they “have been sold up the river by the governors in the name of political correctness” might run for election against the current governors. (Academy members successfully campaigning for the board on an anti-diversity slate? Don’t hold your breath.)

In the face of those pressures, Isaacs’s calm decision to hold firm on the initiatives — and to rip the Band-Aid off all at once — was not only levelheaded, but indicative of a deep understanding of Academy history. When #OscarsSoWhite started making news, many people complained that the Academy was being scapegoated for a larger industry issue. But that accusation is a way of saying the Academy can only serve as a reflection of Hollywood, not a leader of it — a belief that history refutes. During World War II, for example, the Academy took an active role in coordinating efforts that involved the War Department and the studios. So if Isaacs wants to argue that an institution meant to celebrate the best of an industry should also demand the best of that industry, she’s on very solid ground. “This isn’t unprecedented for the Academy,” she wrote in her initial statement promising changes. “In the '60s and '70s it was about recruiting younger members to stay vital and relevant.” The Academy president back then was the unsurpassably authoritative Gregory Peck; nobody would have dared accuse Atticus Finch of succumbing to the forces of political correctness even if the phrase had existed. His push to overhaul the membership roster helped modernize the Oscars and freshen the nominations just as American studio filmmaking was undergoing a major revitalization. Today, he’s remembered as one of the most influential of all Academy presidents.

Isaacs seems likely to join him on that short list. She’s been elected three times, and this spring, she will decide whether to run for a fourth (and, by the Academy’s bylaws, final) one-year term. Whether she does or not, her place in Oscars history may be secure. Will the initiative succeed? If you define “succeed” as “create an Academy composed of people of more varied backgrounds and perspectives that in turn demands more of those perspectives from its art and rewards the best of them,” then, you know, yes, of course it will succeed! How could it not? Inevitably, there’ll be some reactive griping about “lowering the bar” in order to increase Academy diversity, but so what? Nobody familiar with AMPAS’s past admission practices can argue that it ever honored a bar — if one even existed — with any consistency. And equally inevitably, we will probably overmonitor progress, claiming victory or defeat based solely on what happens to, say, this year’s Sundance prizewinner The Birth of a Nation, a version of the Nat Turner story written, produced, and directed by its African-American star Nate Parker that was already being burdened with the label “test case” before the print was even flown back from Utah.

But this can’t be about one movie, one artist, one redemptive win, or even one year. If the nomination roster next spring, or in 2019, or 2021, looks enough like America not to generate an OscarsSoAnything protest, that will be a victory. And for that, some credit will surely have to go to Isaacs’s determination to treat diversity not as an irksome public-relations issue that will just blow over but as an actual goal — and to lead the Academy, despite some kicking and screaming, to do the same.