Hollywood 2016: Diversity as Action within Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

oscars_2016_1Cheryl Boone Isaacs, President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences President (AMPAS) hopes that an ongoing debate about the lack of diversity among Oscar nominees will spur greater representation of minorities on screen, as well as across studio lots and board rooms.

She noted during a talk at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday morning, that the industry has taken substantive steps to bolster minorities, only to fall back on old hiring and promotional patterns.

“The door has opened this time…the goal is not to have the door close,” she said.

For decades, the Academy, the organization behind the Oscars, has been dominated by white men. Not only in its acting nominees, which for two years have lacked any honorees of color, but also in its voting rolls.
Isaacs said that the membership was 94% white and 77% male, putting it out of touch with the changing face of the film industry and the world. To rectify the situation, the Academy has embarked on a major push to double the number of women and minority members by 2020.

“It’s a big goal, but you have to set a big goal,” Isaacs said. “If you don’t set a big goal than what’s the point?”

The Academy invited 683 members, as part of what Isaacs said was its most diverse class ever.  “It has energized our membership quite a bit,” she added.

The steps will likely change the makeup of the group, and it’s an overhaul that the Oscars chief said most members endorse, with a few exceptions.  “Some people just don’t like change, but, by and large, we’ve gotten a great reception,” she said.

The goal is for the changes in the membership to spur larger institutional shifts. There is a need for people in the entertainment business to examine their unconscious biases. It’s not that members of the industry are racist, she implied, it’s that they hire crews they’ve worked with before or talent they are most familiar with seeing on screen. That means that many people of color don’t get the opportunities to shine, despite their gifts.

“You do tend to not look further than your own space and we’re asking everyone to look further,” she said.

Academy members are “ambassadors,” and Isaacs hailed the examples of J.J. Abrams and Ava DuVernay, both Oscar voters, for pushing to hire women and minorities in upcoming projects.

“The more that we see talent that is more diverse the more we’ll recognize, ‘oh my goodness, they’re actually out there,’” Isaacs said.

“It becomes more than a conversation,” she added. “It becomes action.”

Isaacs said that she was heartened that there have been more leading roles for women in recent years, particularly in projects that typically were reserved for men. That change could mean that gender dynamics are more realistically presented on film.

In particular she joked that she’d like to see an end to on-screen relationships where “… the man isn’t one age and the wife is 30 years younger.”

But the issue goes beyond offering more inclusion for people of color and women. There should be more roles for transgender actors and the disabled, Isaacs said. She noted that too often in films, scenes shot in teeming urban areas only have white men in the background.

“That’s not what it normally looks like in a metropolis,” she said.

Rather, she argued, cities are filled with minorities, with women, with people assisted by seeing eye dogs or navigating streets in wheelchairs.

“That’s real, so why don’t we get real?” Isaacs said.