Academy’s president adjusts stance on diversity issue

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

#OscarsSoWhite sparks race, gender debate.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the first black woman at the helm of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the trade organization that produces the Oscars.(Photo: Chris Pizzello, Invision, via AP) In an interview with the Associated Press that appeared over the weekend, Boone Isaacs said this year’s all-white Oscar acting nominations have inspired her to accelerate the academy’s push to be more inclusive. “In the last two years, we’ve made greater strides than we ever have in the past toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization through admitting new members and more inclusive classes of members,” Boone Isaacs said. Los Angeles – Within minutes of the announcement of Academy Award nominations on Thursday last week, up popped a Twitter hashtag to frame fresh debate about the lack of diversity in Hollywood: #OscarsSoWhite. This was different than what she said Thursday when the Oscar nominations were announced and she was quoted saying she doesn’t think the academy has a diversity problem “at all.” “The good news is that the wealth of talent is there, and it’s being discussed, and it’s helpful so much for talent — whether in front of the camera or behind the camera — to have this recognition, to have this period of time where there is a lot of publicity, a lot of chitter-chatter,” she told New York Magazine’s Vulture blog.

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.

At the Critics’ Choice award, another Selma actor, Wendell Pierce, said there would be “amazement” Oyelowo was not nominated once people saw the film. 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.

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. Congratulations, @TheAcademy for taking several steps backwards. #OscarsSoWhite pic.twitter.com/SNhDw9TmbL — Nerdy Wonka (@NerdyWonka) January 17, 2015 A 2012 survey by the Los Angeles Times found the academy was 94 per cent white, overwhelmingly male and with a median age of 62.

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. Some on Twitter noted it might take some time to get full diversity in the academy because it reflects the film industry in general, which surveys show is largely white. 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. 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. Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted.

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. 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. It’s an award that showcases the talent of everyone involved in the production of the movie Selma.” Boone Isaacs says the five best actor nominees — Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) and Michael Keaton (Birdman) — “are all at the top of their game”. “This is a membership organisation, so we are all involved in this discussion and moving the subject of diversity forward,” she said. “It’s very important for us to continue to make strides to increase our membership and the recognition of talent.” “It behooves Hollywood as an economic imperative, if not a moral one — to begin more closely reflecting the changing face of America,” the statement said. 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. 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.

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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