Responding for the first time to the firestorm of criticism over the lack of diversity in this year's Oscar nominations, film academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs says the all-white acting slate inspires her to accelerate the academy's push to be more inclusive. She also hopes the film industry as a whole will continue to strive for greater diversity.
The first black president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences spoke out Friday night in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press about the Oscar nominations and the widespread criticism that followed.
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All 20 of this year's acting contenders are white and there are no women in the directing or writing categories. After the nominations were announced Thursday morning, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite started trending on Twitter.
The Asian Pacific American Media Coalition issued a statement Friday saying the nominations balloting "obviously reflects a lack of diversity in Oscar voters as well as in films generally."
Yet Boone Isaacs insisted the academy is "committed to seeking out diversity of voice and opinion" and that outreach to women and artists of colour is a major focus.
"In the last two years, we've made greater strides than we ever have in the past toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization through admitting new members and more inclusive classes of members," Boone Isaacs said. "And, personally, I would love to see and look forward to see a greater cultural diversity among all our nominees in all of our categories."
A 2012 survey by the Los Angeles Times found the academy was 94 per cent white, overwhelmingly male and with a median age of 62. A more recent survey determined the percentage of older white males had dropped by one point, the Times said. But with nearly 7,000 members and no requirement to retire, diversity is going to take some time.
Boone Isaacs declined to address whether she and the academy were embarrassed by the slate of white Oscar nominees, instead insisting that she's proud of the nominees, all of whom deserved recognition.
She explained that while each branch comes up with its own criteria for excellence and each nominates its colleagues, all voting is individual and confidential.
For instance, only directors can suggest best director nominees and only actors can nominate actors. But the entire academy membership can submit suggestions for best picture.
"There is not one central body or group of people that sit around the table and come up with nominations," she said. "It really is a peer-to-peer process."
With all the accolades the civil rights drama Selma has received since its Christmas opening, some felt its failure to garner nominations for director Ava DuVernay or star David Oyelowo reflected a racial bias.
"What is important not to lose sight of is that Selma, which is a fantastic motion picture, was nominated for best picture this year, and the best picture category is voted on by the entire membership of around 7,000 people," Boone Isaacs said.
Best picture nod for Selma
Besides best picture, the film received just one additional nod — for original song — in what was widely viewed as a significant snub ahead of the Feb. 22 awards show. But fans shouldn't feel that way, she said: "It's nominated for the Oscar for best picture. It's an award that showcases the talent of everyone involved in the production of the movie Selma."
Boone Isaacs says the five best actor nominees — Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) and Michael Keaton (Birdman) — "are all at the top of their game."
"There are quite a few actors this year at the top of their game," she said. "There are five nominees and this year, these were the five."
Diversity outreach is spread among the academy's 17 branches, she said, since existing members recruit new ones.
"This is a membership organization, so we are all involved in this discussion and moving the subject of diversity forward," she said. "It's very important for us to continue to make strides to increase our membership and the recognition of talent."
In its Friday statement, the Asian Pacific coalition said the responsibility for diversity in film should be industry-wide.
"It behooves Hollywood — as an economic imperative, if not a moral one — to begin more closely reflecting the changing face of America," the statement said.
Boone Isaacs agrees, saying that as the academy "continues to make strides toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization, we hope the film industry will also make strides toward becoming more diverse and inclusive."
Though she repeatedly stressed the Oscars are a competitive process and that she's proud of the year's nominees, Boone Isaacs acknowledged that diversity needs to be mandatory in both story and storyteller.
"It matters that we pay attention to, again, the diversity of voice and opinion and experience, and that it doesn't slide, it doesn't slide anywhere except for forward," she said. "And maybe this year is more just about let's kick it in even more."