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The Academy Prioritizes Diversity for a Second Year Running

The organization continues to push for an industry inclusion mandate with the induction of its newest members.
By  · Published on June 30th, 2017

The organization continues to push for an industry inclusion mandate with the induction of its newest members.

Last year, the Academy announced a commitment to double its number of diverse members by 2020. Subsequently, the organization invited 683 artists and executives to join the voting pool that same year.

They seem to be on track with keeping to their word. This is evidenced by this year’s list of Academy voter invitees, which shows an even larger spike in statistical diversity with a total of 774 new members added.

This actually feels like tangible action on the Academy’s part. It was a more nebulous decision last year because, what if it had only been a one-off? But this year’s list not only obviously diversifies the pool of voters in terms of ethnicity and gender. It is also a clearer representation of how the Western media industry works as a whole. There is a mix of arthouse and mainstream talent in the list, a rather definitive statement that these categories do not negate each other. Distinct media footprints are actually a thing, and diversity exists in taste as well. The wide international range of invitees is also noteworthy.

Despite this, some remain unconvinced that this strategy would reap any benefits in the long run. The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg is especially critical over the fact that a number of inductees seem to have more discernible roots in television than in film, or have simply not worked “enough” to qualify for an invitation.

However, the question of supposed credentials feels redundant because terms like “Oscar bait” exist for a reason. People are all too aware of what “should” go into an Academy Award-nominated film or performance due to the sheer amount of repetition the industry perpetuates.

The practice of diversification rightly promotes different perspectives and provokes us to interrogate those normalized concepts. So Jordan Peele may have only directed one feature. He still knocked that movie out of the park and created game-changing cinema. Part of that revolution comes from a viewpoint of resistance and activism that is antithetical to Hollywood’s norms.

Furthermore, we have lived in a collaborative media landscape for years. Crossover appeal has only become more commonplace. These days, high-quality media can be found anywhere, regardless of whether Netflix, HBO, or Warner Bros. are distributing that content. Why else would people discuss the “Renaissance/Golden Age of television,” and why else would film actors consider signing on for longer form stories?

The concept of only having “big-screen contribution(s) of any note” doesn’t really exist in media production anymore when creators are fluidly working across multiple channels. Artists gain invaluable experience and insight regardless of the kind of creative endeavor they pursue. People within the industry aren’t less qualified to discern what a good film production or performance is just because they haven’t worked as prolifically in the medium as they have elsewhere.

Halle Berry’s recent conversation with Teen Vogue’s Elaine Welteroth proves rather illuminating in conjunction with the Academy’s diversification efforts. On her Best Actress victory for Monster’s Ball, Berry has this to say:

“I thought it meant something but I think that meant nothing. And I was profoundly hurt by that and saddened by that, and it inspired me to try to get involved in other ways.”

Berry remains the only woman of color to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. Her 2002 speech was completely unplanned, but it was undeniably rousing and galvanizing: “This is for every nameless, faceless woman of color who now has a chance because this door has been opened.”

When I look at how uncommon it is for inclusive stories to find a seat at the table at something like the Oscars, I absolutely understand Berry’s sense of culpability. She doesn’t just represent the black community with her success but inadvertently became a voice for all women of color.

Now, diversity should never be tokenistic, and culture is non-transferrable. Just as it’s absurd to assume the performance of a white actor should speak to a worldwide audience, there shouldn’t just be one woman of color representing all. Yet, in the 15 years since Berry’s triumph, no one else has been able to bear the torch in her category. The responsibility to inspire a later generation, then, seems to all fall on her shoulders. It might come across like pure luck that a non-white woman managed to take the statuette home if it goes by unacknowledged.

The real issue here is that there needs to be a concerted effort by notable establishments to undo assumptions of merit within the film industry. Any quest for meritocracy in cinema can hardly be achieved when voting pools remain grossly imbalanced. Feinberg makes the point that diversity should be imperative from the word go. When films are made inclusively and to a certain calibre, they would “logically” be nominated and voted for.

I’m inclined to disagree. Awards generate buzz and interest in films people may not normally go for. Sometimes, they even promote films the vast majority of audiences aren’t yet aware of. And obviously, audience engagement is of utmost importance due to the huge cost undertaking of filmmaking. In an industry that feeds off of its own cyclical method of predicting which movies sell and which won’t, this is about reconsidering what counts as “Oscar bait.” Representation isn’t a trend, and having concrete changes in large institutions within an entrenched system helps drive that point home.

Luckily, the Academy seems to be taking that challenge in stride. They could trigger a significant trickle-down effect the more inclusivity is constantly supported. This doesn’t mean that the work stops here. Women still comprise only 28% of the Academy’s overall membership. People of color as a whole have it worse, clocking in at a mere 13% total.

The victory may be small, but at least it’s palpable. In an ideal industry, actors from marginalized groups like Berry would not have to unduly bear the brunt of responsibility when it comes to representation. Creators across the board would tell stories reflective of actual multiculturalism. Producers will continue to embrace the fact that, time and time again, inclusion sells tickets at the movies.

The Academy’s decision to rapidly diversify its voting roster is a much stronger emblem of representation than a single win, as important and momentous as that occasion was. I disagree with Berry’s own assessment that her win “meant nothing.” She admits that she never expected to take the trophy home at all. But she ruptured all expectations that night and remains a vital wake-up call to the Academy nonetheless.

Yet, Berry shouldn’t have to be the only one rooting for girls in her corner when the film industry is a collective effort.

It’s easier to hope now. The Academy Awards — “the last stop on a film’s long journey,” according to Feinberg — seems primed to properly jumpstart and consistently keep up with the inclusion of marginalized voices. It could be the start of substantial, necessary re-canonization.

Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)