Oscar’s Efforts to Boost Diversity Show Results, But …

Last night's wins in major categories for films made by black and Latino directors show the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' progress as it focuses on diversity. But as recent statistics show, its voting body remains strongly male and white.

On the diversity front, Sunday’s Academy Awards represented something historic: a breakthrough.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) chose 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s unflinching drama about slavery, as Best Picture—making it the first film by a black director to win the honor. And in the Best Director category, Alfonso Cuarón won for his alone-in-space epic Gravity, making him the first Latino to win the award.

The awards, on their own, represent major progress for the film industry. But under the radar, the success comes as AMPAS works to change the makeup of the Academy as a whole—something that’s still early in production. More details:

The Academy has really pushed forward, and I know my election is part of this … a recognition of the diversity that’s out there that has been able to rise.

A voting body that skews white and male: As the Los Angeles Times reported in a lengthy 2012 investigation, the Academy traditionally has struggled with diversity, identifying 5,100 active voters and finding that 94 percent of them were white, just 23 percent were female, and their median age was 62. While a former AMPAS president, Dog Day Afternoon screenwriter Frank Pierson, defended the merit-based approach toward admission at the time, at least one voting member (and household name) suggested things needed to change. “If the country is 12 [percent] black, make the academy 12 [percent] black,” two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington told the Times then. “If the nation is 15 [percent] Hispanic, make the academy 15 [percent] Hispanic. Why not?”

Why the director win is a big deal: One look at the historical data emphasizes that diversity has been slim in certain categories, particularly Best Director. As Buzzfeed writer Adam B. Vary noted in an article last month, a total of just 17 people who were not white males have been nominated in the Best Director category. One woman (The Hurt Locker director Katheryn Bigelow) and one Asian director (Ang Lee, who won for Life of Pi and Brokeback Mountain) accounted for the three wins among that group in the entire history of the awards—and those only came within the last decade. Cuarón’s win last night suggests a tipping of the scales in the category.

Diversity at the top: Leading these efforts is Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first black president of the Academy and just its third female leader. Speaking to NPR last week, she seemed aware of the potential for her role to help improve the balance. “This is a great medium, and we really want to keep it fresh and be more inclusive,” she says. “The Academy has really pushed forward, and I know my election is part of this … a recognition of the diversity that’s out there that has been able to rise.” Boone Isaacs, herself a 27-year member of the Academy, has worked to remove limits on the number of new voting members each year and invited more than 400 people to join the Academy in the past two years. Some of those invited included actress and singer Jennifer Lopez, Machete-wielding action star Danny Trejo, and Sin City‘s Rosario Dawson.

But the problem lingers: Despite the fresh influx of voting members, the problem won’t fade so easily. As Buzzfeed notes, the diversity among the new members is significantly better than previous years, but 68 percent of the 2013 invitees were still male and 71 percent of the inductees were white. And long-term trends will take decades to bear results, based on current trends, according to the Times. “Even assuming a historically high annual attrition rate—those who die or retire from the academy—of 200 of the organization’s oldest members, with those leaving the academy replaced by inductees whose demographics mirror those of the last two classes, the academy still would be 89 [percent] white and 72 [percent] male by 2023. Its median age would drop to 61,” Times writers John Horn and Doug Smith wrote in December.

For her part, Boone Isaacs told the Times that while fostering diversity is an important goal, it won’t come at the cost of lowering standards. Instead, she recommends that members remember that a good voter comes in all forms.

“We want all of our members to be more proactive in terms of looking at the people they work with, and suggesting that different people apply for membership who haven’t before,” she said.

Best Director winner Alfonso Cuarón, shown on the set of "Gravity." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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