The Academy is constantly telling on itself. There’s an illusion that it’s inching toward closing the gap between inclusion and meritocracy, with Oscar wins for the likes of Parasite, Black Panther, and Roma. Recently, the Academy implemented a new diversity initiative, taking effect in 2024, mandating that any Best Picture nominee check off certain boxes complying with representation standards based on race, gender, sexuality, sexual identity, and/or ability. But if films that do are already good, shouldn’t they be considered viable candidates—without this requirement?
Just look at yesterday’s announcement of the Gotham Award nominees. They feature a plethora of diverse talent—including best features all directed by women and accolades for actors like Nicole Beharie, Riz Ahmed and Yuh-Jung Youn. All with no decree stating this talent needs to be honored.
But the Academy is still light years behind. This has been a problem throughout its 93-year history. But what makes this issue especially frustrating now is that there’s been so much conversation about a cultural reckoning—including the Academy inducting a whopping 2,688 new members in the last three years to atone for its able-bodied white men majority (it remains 84 percent white and 68 percent male as of January 2020)—that Best Picture candidates reflecting the diversity of our real world should be more natural.
Instituting a diversity mandate is a tiny Band-Aid that avoids addressing a massive issue: mindset. Hollywood as an institution refuses to acknowledge that it views anything falling outside its homogenous lens as automatically inferior. Phenomena such as five white male-dominated Best Picture nominees over Malcolm X in 1993 demonstrates this, among numerous other instances. Thus, it’s hard not to think the 2024 Best Picture candidates will be chosen for their diversity markers and not their quality.
Oscar winner Viola Davis put it best when she was asked about inclusion riders last year: “I don’t want to be a part of any piece of paper that has to force people to see me.” She knows that in doing so, you’re diminishing the artist’s merit. The fact that it’s 2020 and people need to be reminded to pay attention to other perspectives and narratives is exhausting. For the talent, it can easily become demoralizing. And it doesn’t help that less than a day after the new ruling was announced, longtime Academy voters like Kirstie Alley threw a fit on Twitter about it: “The new RULES to qualify for ‘best picture’ are dictatorial… anti-artist. Hollywood, you’re swinging so far left you’re bumping into your own ass.”
To be fair, these “RULES,” as Alley screamed online, are extraordinarily basic in the grand scheme of things. Films need only meet two of four overarching standards. With Standard A, “on-screen representation, themes and narratives,” the film must meet just two of these three requirements: Only one of the lead actors or significant supporting actors has to be from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group; 30 percent of the ensemble cast must come from any underrepresented group (women, LGBTQ+, ethnic minority, or people with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing); or the main storyline, theme, or narrative must center around any of those groups.
The most wide-ranging of the requirements is “creative leadership and department heads.” This sweeping list of 14 includes everyone from the director and writer to the hairstylist and cinematographer. And it must consist of only two people from underrepresented groups. These regulations are so simple that most Oscar nominees and winners in Academy history already pass the test, including the atrocious Green Book.
That brings us to a rather complicated juncture in this conversation: The variety of diverse narratives we’ll see. The Academy has shown us time and time again what kind of diversity it prefers—The Help, Little Women, Driving Miss Daisy, Gone with the Wind. They’re “diverse” but all fulfill agendas that Hollywood is most comfortable with, including Black servitude and white feminism.
So, will Hollywood move away from these types of stories? The mandate doesn’t require them to defy stereotypes or consider harmful narratives. It doesn’t require them to stop casting cisgender actors in transgender roles, like Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, or white actors playing characters of color, like Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind. It doesn’t specify that able-bodied actors can no longer play characters who use a wheelchair, like Gary Sinise in Forrest Gump. And it doesn’t mitigate the recurring prevalence of one underrepresented group over another. They’re all grouped together in the mandate. In fact, the standards give filmmakers a ton of leeway. Though, as we’ve seen with Alley’s reaction, even that is apparently overwhelming.
The issue remains that this new initiative runs the risk of representation, already an omnipresent dialogue, taking precedence over quality. Spend just a few minutes on social media and you’ll come across people advocating for many films that check certain diversity boxes but are subpar, including Selma, a 2014 Oscar Best Picture nominee. That same year, superior dramas Like Father, Like Son and Fruitvale Station were both ignored by the Academy.
Voting has always been political and clearly subjective, but as we make efforts to bring perspectives to the forefront and add more diversity, we can’t also be blind to a film’s flaws. As we’ve seen with Parasite, Black Panther, and Roma, a great movie can be inclusive and masterful at the same. And they should be. The Academy shouldn’t have to change its eligibility requirements in order to come to that conclusion. What it needs to change is its biased understanding of quality filmmaking.
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