Does the Academy of Motion Pictures Need Affirmative Action?

February 20, 2012  |  


The critical acclaim surrounding “The Help” has brought the issue of ethnic representation and racial discrimination in the entertainment industry front and center, and for once it seems black people aren’t the only ones talking about it. With congratulatory wishes for the awards the film has garnered comes questions of why it takes black people portraying servant roles— Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Hattie McDaniel—or negative characters—Denzel Washington and Halle Berry—for their acting ability to be recognized. And If you let the LA Times tell it, the issue appears to stem from the fact that the ethnic, gender, and age makeup of the Academy members is about as dated as the images of black life we see portrayed in Oscar-worthy films.

The names of all 5,765 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is kept about as secret as the CIA’s Al Qaeda intel, but what is known is that 94 percent are Caucasian, 77 percent are male, and the median age is 62. The Times even found that some of the academy’s 15 branches are almost exclusively white and male, with Caucasians currently making up 90 percent or more of every academy branch except actors, where the makeup is 88 percent white. Overall, blacks make up about 2 percent of the academy; Latinos, less than that.

On one hand, writer-director Phil Alden Robinson, a longtime academy governor, understands that lack of diversity is an issue that needs to be dealt with, but on the other he passes the buck of responsibility.

“We absolutely recognize that we need to do a better job, but we start off with one hand tied behind our back…. If the industry as a whole is not doing a great job in opening up its ranks, it’s very hard for us to diversify our membership.”

While Robinson has an enormous point there, what about the independent filmmakers who don’t always garner the type of acclaim they should but who are making exceptional cinema works that rival some of the big names we often hear about? There are ways to diversify membership if the academy is truly interested in looking outside the Blockbuster ranks to find talent. Frank Pierson, a former academy president who still serves on the board of governors, demonstrates exactly why it can’t be left up to the various branches of the industry to diversify itself. He told the LA Times:

“I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for. We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”

That same attitude no doubt characterizes some of the industry branches who feel the small glimpse of black life that is shown on the big screen is proportionate with our representation in society.But you can’t be so arrogant to think that white people just so happen to be the 94 percent, that their exceptional talent is the only reason why they are where they are and why women and minorities aren’t there.

The academy is a classic example of the old boy’s network. Membership is available by invitation only, and candidates must be sponsored by at least two members of the branch for which the person may qualify in order to be considered. Who will recommend women, African Americans, and Latinos if there are barely enough of those members to sponsor someone? The issue isn’t just about a race criteria, it’s about diversifying the lens through which talent is seen. There’s nothing shocking about the academy mostly being white men, and mostly white men winning awards. We all tend to look for and find the best in our own and with 6 percent minority and 23 percent female representation it makes it that much harder to see talent outside of that singular lens—and black women portraying maids begin to look like an excellent reflection of society when that couldn’t be further from the case in 2012.

When Denzel Washington won his Academy Award for “Training Day” he spoke about the need for the academy to balance its membership, saying, “If the country is 12% black, make the academy 12% black. If the nation is 15% Hispanic, make the academy 15% Hispanic. Why not?” I think doing so would lead the industry down the same hill minorities in universities across America are rolling, where they are assumed to have gotten where they are because of their skin color and not because of their merit. Diversity for the sake of diversity doesn’t solve anything, but taking a step back and acknowledging that there is no way the academy in its current makeup can possibly reflect the diverse talent that is in the industry would be everything.

There’s virtually no way to make sure the academy, which doesn’t even require that its voting members still be active in the industry, has a makeup that totally reflects society in age, race, or gender but there is a need for a mental shift in which members and governors recognize that the lack of diversity in its makeup limits is scope. In doing so, they would realize that their membership as it currently stands doesn’t allow it to fulfill its sole purpose which is to represent and recognize “the most accomplished men and women working in cinema.”

What do you think about Denzel Washington’s idea of making the academy reflect society in terms of racial diversity? Does the academy need to diversify its membership? How should it go about it?

Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.

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