RUSSO: Diversify the Academy

The current system for awarding Oscars is based on nepotism and outdated standards

Perhaps celebrated author Junot Diaz said it best when he described how he felt as a young child who couldn’t find anyone who looked like him represented in the media: “There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror” and “if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

American movies and television can be found in all corners of the globe. One could argue our cultural reach has surpassed our political prowess in the 21st century. And we have, undoubtedly, progressed immensely as a society in the past 50 years in terms of celebrating and accepting diversity. In my lifetime, diversity has fortunately been a hot topic for discussion.

While our movies, music and television have a global reach, we must not forget they have an even stronger hold on our collective consciousness at home. This year’s Academy Awards make it glaringly obvious that there is need for a reevaluation of the composition of the members of the Academy, which snubbed both women and minorities in the nominations. All of the 20 actors who were nominated for Oscars this year were white. In addition, every single director and screenwriter nominated was male.

Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA says, “the Academy is overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male and most membership is in their 60s. There’s a certain taste and culture there, and a particular type of storytelling that isn’t very inclusive of diverse points of view.”

According to NPR, the two primary criteria one must fit to join the Academy are having a substantial amount of expertise in the industry and having connections to a current Academy member. One can only join the Academy if invited to apply by this current member. It seems nepotism within this elite group will prevent the academy from achieving any semblance of a diverse composition in the near future, especially since membership is for life. The only solution is to eliminate this stipulation and allow for members of the Hollywood community to apply and be judged based only on their body of work and experience rather than by whom they know.

It is important in this case to differentiate between surface level diversity and meaningful diverse representation. Some might argue the fact that Cheryl Boone Isaacs — the president of the Academy — is black means the Academy does not need to think about diversity. This argument can be likened to the common one that because the United States has a black president, all race issues have already been resolved. While “Twelve Years a Slave” received many accolades at the 2014 Academy Awards, many believed “Selma,” which is more modern and topical (especially this past year), was snubbed by the Academy, especially because the female director of the film, Ava DuVernay, was not nominated for best director.

Some might argue the lack of the diversity in the group will self-correct with time. This is true to some extent — in recent years the Academy has seen a slight increase in minority members — but the slow-moving process of inviting new members person-by-person as it exists now will simply take too long.

Movies are not just made for entertainment purposes. Often they carry political and social implications. Movies that win an Academy Award are deemed important, and are remembered for decades if not longer. For these reasons, it is vital that the body selecting the winners be representative of the interests of all those working in Hollywood. Since one serves in the Academy for life, many of the people currently voting each year may have antiquated ideas about what constitutes a quality film which do not reflect audiences’ views.

The Academy is the most prestigious of groups in Hollywood. The lack of diversity of members of the Academy is representative of a greater issue: a general lack of diversity in Hollywood. The president of the Academy acknowledged the link between the Academy and the industry, saying as the academy “continues to make strides toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization, we hope the film industry will also make strides toward becoming more diverse and inclusive.”

The Academy sets the precedent for what is considered the finest work in the industry. This is not diversity for the sake of diversity, but rather diversity for the sake of a measured collective judgement of the artistic achievements of Hollywood.

Would a push for diversity in the Academy have any palpable results on nominations? I would like to presume that a more diverse Academy would nominate a more representative array of actors, producers and directors. However, I could be wrong. It is possible, although unlikely, that the lack of diversity in this year’s nominations has nothing to do with the composition of the Academy. However, that does not mean the Academy should not reevalute its selection process to be more inclusive and pliable to change. Hollywood constitutes one of the nation’s biggest industries, with talented individuals from all backgrounds striving to tell their stories. Its most storied institution should reflect that.

Mary Russo is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at m.russo@cavalierdaily.com.

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