LOS ANGELES — As the 88th Academy Awards ceremony draws nearer, industry insiders reflect on the changes made in the Academy to address the lack of diversity in the recent nominees, and how they can serve as a building block for future progress.
The conflict began after the Jan. 14 announcement of Oscar nominations, when — for the second year in a row — no actors of color received any of the 20 nominations for acting awards.
After being barraged with accusations of bias and discrimination, the Academy Jan. 22 unveiled a plan to double the number of women and minority members by 2020. To make room for fresh faces, members will lose their voting privileges if they become inactive in the industry after 10 years.
Though he claimed the changes are long overdue, Jarvee Hutcherson, the president of the Multicultural Motion Picture Association, said he commended the Academy for making strides to ensure each work receives fair consideration.
“The older generation would never vote for ‘Straight Outta Compton,’” he said. Referring to the summer movie that depicted the beginning of the Compton rap group N.W.A.
Though the film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, it failed to garner recognition in any other category in spite of critical acclaim. And to add further irony, the screenplay was written by two whites.
Twenty-four years ago, Hutcherson, a musician, initiated talks with studio heads about producing different types of stories. He was told it was “politically incorrect,” to even address diversity.
In response, he created the Annual Diversity Awards, which have honored well-known talent such as Jada Pinkett-Smith, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Salma Hayek.
Hutcherson said another way the Academy can remain relevant is to extend membership to those in the industry who are not necessarily big-name stars, as that would widen the perspectives of those involved in the decision-making process.
“It’s a different world,” he said. “Everyone has a story to tell.”
Steven James Tingus, a political and entertainment consultant, has been working alongside Hutcherson to advocate for change. He said that part of the problem lies with the studio heads and the types of content they believe attracts audiences.
“The studio executives don’t care about the red carpet or the awards. For them it’s all about the dollar,” Tingus said. “When you approach them from a business standpoint rather than as an actor or an activist, you get a different response. They become interested and engaged.”
Tingus, who has had muscular dystrophy since age two, is pushing for more projects involving disabled characters, as they would reflect current demographics and draw interest.
According to Tingus, about 20 percent of the U.S. population is made up of people with disabilities. And out of these, each person has one or two people who help provide their care. Therefore, physical or intellectual disabilities affect about 40 percent of the population, he said.
“A character could be able-bodied or have a disability,” Tingus said. “People just don’t think of it.”
Tingus said he has found an ally in Shonda Rhimes, the creator and executive producer of popular television series “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” as well as in Danny Strong and Lee Daniels, the co-creators of “Empire.”
But he compared affecting change in Hollywood to the gradual political process in Washington, D.C., where he served as the director for the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research under President George W. Bush.
“It’s similar to the long period of time it takes to write a bill,” Tingus said. “I’ve been in talks with NBC Universal for two years, and they’ve been saying they’re working on an agenda [to incorporate more disabilities], but they had nothing when I talked to them again at the end of January.”
Gil Robertson, the president of the African-American Critics Association, shares Tingus’ opinion that the entertainment industry is foremost a business, and audiences should approach it as such if they are not happy with what they see.
“Communities of color need to do their part in supporting movies with performers of color,” Robertson said. “We can’t just sit there and point fingers. If you see something on TV you don’t like, write a letter or send an email. Even if that’s all you do, at least you’re doing something.”