Academy president responds to Oscar firestorm

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

#OscarsSoWhite sparks race, gender debate.

LOS ANGELES: Responding for the first time to the firestorm of criticism over the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations, film academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs says the all-white acting slate inspires her to accelerate the academy’s push to be more inclusive. She also hopes the film industry as a whole will continue to strive for greater diversity.The first black president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences spoke out about the Oscar nominations and the widespread criticism that followed.

Day and given the context, it is an interesting moment to ask whether it really matters that the motion picture academy failed to nominate the black director and the black lead actor of “Selma,” the King biopic, for Oscars. The slate for the 87th Academy Awards was a reminder of the glacial pace of change in Hollywood’s film industry, even after what looked like progress for black actors and film-makers last year stemming from the best picture winner, 12 Years a Slave.

After all, it lands fairly low on the list of indignities visited on African-Americans: No unarmed people died, no innocent citizens were patted down or jailed. The news continues to be full of all manner of pathology and victimization involving black Americans, and when a moment comes to celebrate both a historical giant and a pure creative achievement, it merits significant and broad recognition. Many would say that it should suffice that “12 Years a Slave,” a film by a black director about black history, won best picture last year, and “Selma” was nominated this year, and that any grievance is a conjured one. Race and gender are not considered, although behind-the-scenes, members say there are debates at branch level about how to make membership more diverse.

The Sundance Institute and Women in Film unveiled a study done with USC/Annenberg examining the top 100 grossing films each year from 2002 through 2012 (which were often big-budget films). David Oyelowo, the star of Selma, and the film’s director Ava DuVernay, both failed to garner nominations despite having been nominated for Golden Globes for their parts in the movie about African-American civil rights activist Martin Luther King jr. Yet Boone Isaacs insisted the academy is “committed to seeking out diversity of voice and opinion” and that outreach to women and artists of colour is a major focus. “In the last two years, we’ve made greater strides than we ever have in the past toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organisation through admitting new members and more inclusive classes of members,” Boone Isaacs said. “And, personally, I would love to see and look forward to see a greater cultural diversity among all our nominees in all of our categories.” A 2012 survey by the Los Angeles Times found the academy was 94% white, overwhelmingly male and with a median age of 62. Boone Isaacs declined to address whether she and the academy were embarrassed by the slate of white Oscar nominees, instead insisting that she’s proud of the nominees, all of whom deserved recognition. Some historians said the film misrepresented President Lyndon Johnson’s stand on voting rights, but critics were quick to point out that Selma was only the latest historical picture to draw scrutiny over its accuracy.

She explained that while each branch comes up with its own criteria for excellence and each nominates its colleagues, all voting is individual and confidential. Nearly half the 6,000 members of the Producers Guild of America are women, Lydia Dean Pilcher of the PGA Women’s Impact Network told Variety last year. And no club in the United States — over the last several years, the academy has been around 93 percent white, 76 percent male and an average of 63 years old — is in more need of new blood than Hollywood. But exclusion of Selma in all the other key Oscar races and in the director, producer, actor and writer guild awards is likely to hurt its chances at winning best picture on Oscars night, said O’Neil, the awards tracker.

I covered the Oscars on the Carpetbagger blog for The New York Times for four years, so I am a bit of an Academy Awards fanboy, but I think that nominations matter. When Lupita Nyong’o received a nomination last year for best actress in a supporting role, it was heartening to see her win and know that children of all kinds would notice that it was not just gossamer white women who walked the red carpet and were celebrated for their artistry. All of this year’s best picture nominees – American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything and Whiplash – have male-dominated casts.

The nominations of the director this time around, and a British actor, David Oyelowo, playing a heroic black figure in the American narrative — not the victim of white oppression, but a corrective to it — would have had particular resonance at this moment. And after months full of tragic news from Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island and all over America, race remains a persistent and complex issue that still has the capacity to divide. As someone who once spent a great deal of time reporting on the ins and outs of the Oscars, I know that the snub is not some overt racial conspiracy at work. The Academy reflects the industry and the AMPAS honchos have been working hard to diversify membership and on diversification within executive and creative ranks.

Among other problems, Paramount thought that “Interstellar” would be its big Oscar horse for the year and jumped on “Selma” as the better bet only when awards season heated up. Perhaps that partly explains why “Selma,” which was second to “Boyhood” in critical acclaim as measured by Metacritic, received just two nominations, for best picture and best song. That means that after Kathryn Bigelow won as best director in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker” — the only female director to have won in the award’s 87 years — there was no reason to even nominate her again for the extraordinary “Zero Dark Thirty.” The “woman thing” had been checked off already. So maybe a large number of Academy voters actually did vote for DuVernay and Oyelowo, but each came in at No 6 or No 7 in categories that accommodates only five. The controversy also creates unfair pressure for Paramount and the makers of Selma: They just wanted to reach audiences with a thoughtful and emotional film, but Selma has become a symbol and a socio-political football.

The screening had been scheduled for some time and was meant to kick off a weekend of celebrations anticipating the federal holiday, so the timing was coincidental, but nonetheless freighted with symbolism. (The director, the stars and Ms. Recognition is important in part because in this instance the film celebrates someone who was not in service to others — a maid, a slave, a driver or a butler — but one of the most important American leaders to have ever lived, a man who changed history. “#OscarsSoWhite they don’t see race. The Oakland Tribune went there and then some on Friday, topping its article about the awards with the headline, “And the Oscar for the best Caucasian goes to …” While the snubs may sting and point toward a broader blindness, it’s still more important in the long run that a young female black director received the backing of a Hollywood studio and made an important film.

Long after the last blubbering actor has been played off the stage while thanking his or her makeup assistant at the Oscars, we will still have “Selma.”

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