Oscars diversity controversy spurs academy to promise change

Oscar organizers will take "dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership," amid renewed furor over lack of diversity at the annual Academy Awards.

Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith highly critical of what Lee calls 'lily white' Oscars

Call to boycott the Oscars

7 years ago
Duration 2:36
A backlash is growing over the lack of racial diversity among nominees for Academy Awards
  Oscar organizers will take "dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership," amid renewed furor over lack of diversity at the annual Academy Awards.

Though lauding the "extraordinary achievements" of this year's nominees, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said she was "both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation and it's time for big changes." 

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said her group will take 'dramatic steps' to alter the makeup of its membership. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/Associated Press)

Isaacs, who is the group's first African-American (and third female) leader, released the statement on Monday, as the U.S. observed the federal holiday marking the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

For several years, the academy has attempted to diversify its membership — infamously older, white and male —  "but the change is not coming as fast as we would like. We need to do more, and better and more quickly," she said, noting specifically that the academy will review its membership recruitment for the class of 2016.

In 2012, the Los Angeles Times conducted a study of the academy's membership and claimed that at that time, 94 per cent of members were Caucasian and two per cent black. The study found that 77 per cent of members were male and that the median age was 62.

"In the '60s and '70s, it was about recruiting younger members to stay vital and relevant. In 2016, the mandate is inclusion in all of its facets: gender race, ethnicity and sexual orientation," Isaacs said.

  Actor Gregory Peck, who served as academy president from 1967 through 1970, tackled an earlier "out-of-touch" controversy by reclassifying members who had not worked in the industry for many years. Though these new "associate members" retained privileges such as free screenings, they lost the right to vote, which was granted only to individuals actively involved in the industry.

The so-called #OscarsSoWhite controversy was revived last week when, for a second consecutive year, the film academy unveiled yet another slate of all-white acting nominees for this year's Oscars. A handful of notable performances —  including Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation, Michael B. Jordan in Creed and Benicio Del Toro in Sicario — had earned critical praise and were widely expected to be nominated. 

Selma star Oyelowo blasts academy

David Oyelowo attends the European premiere of Selma at The Curzon Mayfair on Jan. 27, 2015 in London, England. (Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images)
  "The Academy has a problem ... It's a problem that needs to be solved," actor David Oyelowo said Monday, referencing the controversy at a Los Angeles gala Monday night where he was presenting an award named after civil rights icon Rosa Parks to the academy's Isaacs.

British actor Oyelowo was infamously snubbed by the academy last year for his acclaimed turn as Martin Luther King Jr. in the 2014 drama Selma, as was the film's director, Ava DuVernay.

  "The reason why the Oscars are so important is because it is the zenith. It is the epitome. It is the height of celebration of artistic endeavour within the filmmaking community," he said.

I would like to walk away and say it doesn't matter, but it does.- David Oyelowo

"We grow up aspiring, dreaming, longing to be accepted into that august establishment because it is the height of excellence. I would like to walk away and say it doesn't matter, but it does, because that acknowledgement changes the trajectory of your life, your career, and the culture of the world we live in."

  Oyelowo, born in Britain and of Nigerian heritage, noted in his speech that currently two of the top films at the North American box office —  Star Wars: The Force Awakens and  Ride Along 2 — are led by black performers (John Boyega in the former and Ice Cube and Kevin Hart in the latter), while one of the most popular shows on television today is the hip hop saga  Empire, led by a black cast.

"[The academy] doesn't reflect its president and it doesn't reflect this room. I am an academy member and it doesn't reflect me, and it doesn't reflect [the U.S.]"

Boycott and backlash

  Criticism of the academy and of the wider issue of Hollywood's lack of diversity in key positions (from studio executives to casting directors to filmmakers) came to a head Monday as two prominent entertainment figures vowed to boycott this year's Oscars broadcast.

Director Spike Lee, whom the academy presented an honorary award at the 2015 Governors Awards in November, said in a lengthy Instagram post Monday that he "cannot support" the "lily white" Oscars, though he also acknowledged that the annual award show was not the sole source of the problem. 

Filmmaker Spike Lee will boycott the upcoming Oscars, but acknowledges that the true problem exists with Hollywood's 'gatekeepers.' (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

"It's in the executive offices of the Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks. This is where the gatekeepers decide what gets made," he wrote. "The truth is we ain't in those rooms and until minorities are, the Oscar nominees will remain lily white."

  Meanwhile, in a video message on Facebook, actress and producer Jada Pinkett Smith also said she wouldn't attend or watch the Oscars, calling on people of colour to disregard the ceremony. Her husband, Will Smith, had been considered by some a potential Oscar nominee for his performance in the NFL head trauma drama  Concussion.

"Begging for acknowledgement, or even asking, diminishes dignity and diminishes power," Pinkett Smith said. "And we are a dignified people and we are powerful."

  However, some have criticized the calls to boycott the upcoming Academy Awards, which will be hosted by black comedian Chris Rock.   
Boycotting doesn't work and it's also a slap in the face to Chris Rock.- Whoopi Goldberg

The issue isn't with the Oscars but with Hollywood's lack of financing for diverse films, whether starring blacks or Latinos or even women in prominent roles, former Oscars host Whoopi Goldberg said on the talk show The View on Tuesday.

  "Boycotting doesn't work and it's also a slap in the face to Chris Rock. I find that also wrong. So I'm not going to boycott, but I'm going to continue to bitch, as I have, all year round because I'm tired of seeing movies where no one is represented except a bit of the population," Goldberg said.

Janet Hubert, who appeared on the 1990s series Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as Smith's aunt, also criticized the boycott and, specifically, Pinkett Smith's message.

  "I find it ironic that somebody who has made their living and has made millions and millions of dollars from the very people that you're talking about boycotting just because you didn't get a nomination? ... That's no the way life works, baby," Hubert said in an online video retort.

"Just because the world don't go the way you want it to go, doesn't mean you can go out and start asking people to sing We Shall Overcome for you.

"You ain't Barack and Michelle Obama and y'all need to get over yourselves. You have a huge production company that [only produces] your friends and family and yourself. So you are a part of Hollywood, you are part of the system that is unfair to other actors. So get real." 


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