The Oscars’ New Diversity Requirements Are a Joke
It‘ll take a lot more than this to stop them from being so White.
The Oscars don’t want to be so White anymore.
To help ensure a more diverse group of future nominees, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are implementing new eligibility rules, beginning with the 96th Academy Awards in 2024. Among them: For a film to qualify for Best Picture, at least one lead or significant supporting actor must be from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group (i.e., not White).
There are formality asterisks to mitigate such lofty requirements. Thirty percent of the actors in secondary or minor roles could come from two of these groups: women, LGBTQ, the cognitively or physically disabled, or an underrepresented racial or ethnic minority. Or the A story could revolve around an underrepresented group. In addition, to be eligible for Oscar consideration, movies also must meet certain behind-the-scenes diversity criteria.
The COVID-19 pandemic already has ensured that going to the movies may never be the same again, and now the Academy is guaranteeing the same for making movies — well, if a movie wants to be eligible for the Best Picture Oscar. Had these rules been implemented last year, would 1917, The Irishman and Marriage Story even have been eligible? Would the controversial Bruce Lee sequence in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood have been enough to put it in the running?
As much as I’d love to see Viola Davis tackle Queen Elizabeth I, a diverse cast won’t always enhance storytelling Hamilton-style. Not every historical saga is begging for the diversity treatment.
Going forward, will filmmakers deem Oscar consideration less important that staying true to their creative vision? That’s doubtful, but if they do, these changes will likely change the Oscars more than it will change Hollywood.
Viola Davis is … Queen Elizabeth I?
Here’s the thing: The Academy probably should stick to rewarding the movie industry and not trying to manage it. Trying to force movies to place token minorities in the cast and on the payroll and to tackle topics that relate to underrepresented groups won’t automatically make the Oscars any less White. It won’t necessarily set Zendaya (zero nominations at 24) on course to be the next Saoirse Ronan (four at 26).
As much as I’d love to see Viola Davis tackle Queen Elizabeth I, a diverse cast won’t always enhance storytelling Hamilton-style. Not every historical saga is begging for the diversity treatment. Period costume dramas about British royalty don’t need to become uniformly racially anachronistic, and characters from underrepresented racial, ethnic, and social groups might seem egregiously out of place in a small arthouse film set in Iceland.
The Academy’s race problem isn’t just about a lack of diversity in casting anyway. Last year, there was an embarrassment of rich films populated with predominantly Black talent (Us, Clemency, Just Mercy, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Luce, Waves), and only Harriet — naturally, the one about slavery — managed to score an acting Oscar nomination.
No disrespect to Harriet’s Best Actress nominee Cynthia Erivo, who is supremely talented, but Clemency’s Alfre Woodard should have demanded a recount — or insisted on voters actually seeing her performance as an execution-weary prison warden. It’s the sort of role that would have given a White Oscar favorite, like Meryl Streep or Frances McDormand, a default nomination based on the description alone.
The problem lies in the people who vote for the Oscars. With social media, bloggers, and Oscar prognosticators setting the Oscar discussion months in advance, people tend to focus mostly on screening films with Oscar pedigrees and online buzz. If you’ve been nominated recently, your next film becomes an Oscar contender before it even goes into production. By the time it hits the release schedule, its on the Best Picture prediction shortlist, well before the first screening.
This helped make Little Women and Bombshell main Oscar contenders last year before anyone saw either of them. Following the buzz, Academy voters end up focusing on the handful of “highly anticipated” high-profile films and acclaimed outliers while ignoring most of the rest.
A smaller pool of contenders
That’s why Oscar nominations in recent years have been going to increasingly fewer films while more of those films end up scoring a high number of nominations. Last year, a whopping four movies — Joker, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and The Irishman — earned 10 or more nominations. Four others scored six. That’s a lot of nods (65!) for just eight movies.
Just because voters watch films with predominantly minority casts doesn’t mean they will nominate the actors in them. A couple of years ago, Spike Lee’s Best Picture nominee BlacKkKlansman scored just one acting nod, best supporting actor for Adam Driver, who is White.
If the Academy were to require voters to see everything and not just a select few films with Oscar-friendly talent and/or tons of online and social media buzz, the nominations might be more evenly distributed. Maybe, for the first time in … ever, we’d get a Black, Asian, or Latina Best Actress frontrunner in the mix.
Unfortunately, just because voters watch films with predominantly minority casts doesn’t mean they will nominate the actors in them. A couple of years ago, Spike Lee’s Best Picture nominee BlacKkKlansman scored just one acting nod, best supporting actor for Adam Driver, who is White.
Parasite, the most recent Best Picture Oscar winner didn’t score a single acting nod, becoming the first Best Picture winner not to do so since 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire. Like Parasite, that movie was set in Asia (India) and featured a mostly Asian main cast.
I admire the Academy for thinking about the bigger picture and trying to promote more diversity in films, but rather than putting pressure on the movie industry, they need to put pressure on themselves. Forcing movies to shoehorn in minorities won’t automatically result in #OscarsSoDiverse. That will demand a more difficult shift. Voters will have to start valuing non-White performers as much as they do White ones.