It is no secret that the Academy, as well as other major film and television circles, are overwhelmingly and unabashedly white and male. According to an article in The Atlantic, the demographic composition of the voting members of the Academy remain 93 percent white and 76 percent male, astoundingly high numbers compared to the demographics of the United States population. As a result of this imbalance, the Academy Awards also lack diversity, an issue that arises every year after the nominations are announced.
In response to accusations of racial and gen- der biases within the voting and nomination process, the Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a black woman, announced the forma- tion of an initiative called A2020. A2020 is a five-year plan to diversify the Oscars in which the Academy and associate studios will work on programs to expand the hiring of minorities in the film industry. The plan works directly with top executives in the business to do so, the goal being to ensure that they employ more women and people with minority backgrounds.
While this five-year-plan is a step in the right direction, we cannot fix the racial bias in the Academy by simply encouraging film execu- tives to hire minorities. The problem is with the institutional bias in the film industry and in the United States as a whole. I admire the Academy’s decision to begin a diversity initiative and to address the clear issue with the Academy’s racial biases, but it is simply not enough. Moreover, the specifics of the plan have been unclear to the public. The Academy can encourage filmmak- ers to pursue minority hiring, but it seems that there is little to no guarantee that they will follow through effectively. Further, five years is quite a long time, suggesting that the Academy may not prioritize racial justice.
Additionally, while the sentiment set out by the A2020 plan that the film industry needs to diversify is absolutely positive, it seems also to imply that the minority directors and actors we have presently are not making movies good enough to win awards. Of course, art is subjec- tive, awards can be fickle and it is difficult to place explicit value judgments on film. I recog- nize I have no authority to say which movie or actor was the best, but I refuse to believe that there was not one minority actor or director in all the 2015 movies who deserved an Oscar, or at least a nomination.
The root of the problem with the Academy’s racial bias is perhaps in its representation in voting on nominees, as aforementioned. This should be the first issue addressed to ensure that there is a more diverse group of people deter- mining who wins these awards, rather than sim- ply saying that the present minority filmmakers were not up to snuff with the white filmmakers. If the Academy adds more diversity to its voting body, perhaps we will get a more even represen- tation of minorities and whites who win awards.
However, the Academy’s process for enter- ing the Academy as a voting member may also systematically prevent minorities from joining. People in the film industry become members
through a process of sponsorship, in which two current members advocate for a potential candidate to join. The original members of the Academy were entirely white. If becoming a member requires an industry connection, this kind of sponsorship might be difficult to obtain if you are, for example, a young black actress try- ing to win over an old white director.
In many ways, the Academy is a microcosm of the overall institutional racism in the United States. There are many barriers to becoming successful in the film industry as a minority, and those barriers are certainly not limited to the ones mentioned above. While the plan set out to diversify the awards may be the first acknowl- edgement of the Academy’s racial biases, there are still numerous ways in which the industry must improve in order to work towards racial equality.