Diversity dilemma: the Academy struggles with the slippery slope of defining inclusion

Illustration by Cyan Cowap

By Sydney Owada

 

Photo Courtesy of Disney | ABC Television Group/ Creative Commons
Photo Courtesy of Disney | ABC Television Group/ Creative Commons

The #OscarsSoWhite campaign has bubbled back to the surface of the media pool after a year of persisting with little controversy or excessively forceful activism. However, its recent return to public consciousness has resulted in boycotts of the Academy Awards as well as debates as to whether or not the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are serving a flagship in the film industry’s efforts to improve diversity. While many say that an improvement in racial diversity among nominees benefits the industry as a whole, it has been argued that these efforts towards inclusion, as they stand, amount to little more than symbolic gestures, tokenizing the actors and actresses they endorse.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a well established organization, built squarely on the shoulders of white males that have dominated the film industry for decades. In a 2012 New York Times evaluation (one of the few times the Academy revealed anything regarding the status of its roster), approximately 94% of the 6,000 Academy members were white and 77% were male. This underrepresentation of people of color, as well as women, demonstrates a probable cause for the reflected standings in awards nominees. In response to recent opinions claiming that Academy membership continues to follow this past trend, the Academy’s Board of Governors made a promise in early January to double the number of minority and female board members over the next four years.

However, it cannot be truly determined whether the correlation between the diversity of Academy members and of awards nominees is at the core of the film industry’s inclusion dilemma. There is debate over whether this year’s nominees were selected due to a racist nomination process and bias within the predominately white Academy, or because the overall composition of the film in relation to an actor/actress’ delivery was deemed an “Oscar-worthy” performance. This factor must be taken into consideration as the problem of underrepresentation is discussed — is this issue larger than just problems diversity within the Academy?

To be nominated for an award, an actor/actress must first be given the chance to play a significant role in a film that will present itself as one of high merit, and thus eligible for a prestigious award. It is not that minority performers are sub-par; rather, it is that the film industry as a whole seems to be unaware of the importance of its accountability in casting people of color in leading roles. Here the slippery slope begins, making it hard to discern where the casting issue takes root. Hollywood writers could be urged to create scripts with minority or female leads; directors could favor the same or there could be an increase in the diversity of directors. The film industry must renovate its foundations in order to support the change being sought at the Academy Awards, which, simply put, merely play out the film industry’s output for the year.

The complexity of the debate intensifies with the issue of token minorities in film: one person of color or female character placed in a film is often treated as covering the bases for all underrepresented groups. The same could be said for the Academy Awards, in that some view awards given to performers of color to be statements, intended to tide the Academy over for a few years and silence the outcry against the what look like frequent manifestations of structural biases against marginalized groups taking place throughout the award process.

Although some of the aforementioned films are successful, many performances and films showcasing actors/actresses of color become overshadowed by other pictures that coincidentally have predominantly white casts. This is not solely an issue of race and gender, but also of artistic interpretation, in that the structural systems at stake go beyond merely the Oscars. This is not to say that racial diversity is not an existing issue — we simply must recognize that something must be done first within the film industry and its longstanding values to reform the way in which African-American, Hispanic, Asian, female, gay, and transgender performers are viewed and given opportunities to be recognized for their achievements in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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