The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, that’s the group that picks the Oscar nominees and winners, faces its first big test on Jan. 14.
That’s the day that it will announce who its members have nominated for this year’s Academy Awards. It’s a big test for a good reason.
A year ago the Academy was publicly embarrassed, almost humiliated, by the avalanche of bad press and threats from civil rights leaders to picket and boycott the awards ceremony, it got. It was under withering fire for having a near unbroken parade of white men and women troop to the stage to snare Oscars.
It was the whitest Academy Awards in nearly two decades. It was so white that award ceremony host Neil Patrick Harris got grim-faced laughs when he cracked, “Tonight we celebrate Hollywood’s best and whitest, sorry … brightest.”
The Hollywood industry shot callers did not want a repeat of that image fiasco. They solemnly promised to do everything in their power to do better with the Oscars. They promised to do due diligence in breaking up the clubby, chummy nearly all white, mostly male membership of the Academy.
That meant encouraging more minorities in the industry to apply for membership. They announced that they would launch a new initiative to get more minorities on the Academy staff. They would encourage the studios and independents to scour the woods for more black, Hispanic, Asian and female filmmakers and performers to bring into the industry establishment.
They repeatedly pointed out that the film industry moguls meant business in their pledge to do more to break up the good ole’ white guy club. The proof of that some offered to bolster their claim to do more to make a racial and gender make-over was that the Academy’s own president was an African-American woman.
The debate over what Hollywood should or shouldn’t do to make the film business more ethnically and gender representative of the country and the film going audience has raged for decades. The paltry number of black, Hispanic and Asian screen performers, directors and behind the camera talent who have been nominated, let alone who have won Oscars, has been endlessly cited.
The landmark 2002 Academy Awards in which blacks won the best actor and actress award, or the even more landmark 2006 Awards in which five out of the 20 nominations were black actors or actresses, now seem like ancient history. The Academy has sped backward since those heady days.
The push to get Hollywood to open its doors wide to minorities and women up and down the filmmaking food change is not academic. Minority and women filmgoers yearly pony up tens of millions to help bolster the film business.
What’s presented on the big and little screen represents America’s cultural face of what the industry and the country is supposed to look like. It’s not just about a glitzy on screen image, it’s about transforming an industry whose business is to entertain into a business that reflects and fairly represents its clientele, that is the ticket-buying public, and provides real opportunities for a part of that clientele to work and rise to the top in that industry.
This goes far beyond ladling out a statue on the podium to a handful of hand-picked select and elite film talent every year. Still, it’s the glitter and glamor of that ceremony and those awards that millions on ritual cue tune their TV sets into every year. They sit for hours watching, and along the way identify with and revel in the mirth, ecstasy and fantasy of the Oscar winners.
The Academy is, of course, from its words and promises, and the embarrassment of a year ago is well aware of the industry’s mass power and allure, and even its responsibility to literally put a better and different face on its business. The problem though is how to get those faces in its inner sanctum.
It’s a high bar to scale. A prospective member has to be sponsored by two current members of the Academy. Or, they must have been nominated for an Oscar. There’s more.
If they can get over that bar they have to pass muster by the Academy’s Board of Governors who have the final say so over who gets in. The Academy hasn’t given any indication that it will loosen its admission standards anytime soon, if ever.
Hollywood’s business is what’s it has been from the day in 1929 that it held its first Academy Awards ceremony and that’s to entertain and not crusade for racial and gender diversity. That won’t change.
But what can and should is the face of those who receive its awards for entertaining.
In 2015, all eyes watched an Oscars ceremony that was a mostly white guy’s show. All eyes will again be on the Oscars to see what has changed. The message then is not another white Oscars.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is “Trump and the GOP: Race Baiting to the White House” (Amazon Kindle) He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.