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AMPAS digs into can of worms

The President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, released a statement on Tuesday (NZ time) in response to considerable criticism of the Academy following the release of this year’s Oscar nominations late last week.

For the second year running, no African-Americans were nominated for any of the Oscars’ four acting awards. The lack of nominations led many to criticise the Academy’s choices – or lack of them. A number of prominent black screen industry professionals, including Spike Lee, announced they would boycott the Oscar ceremony in protest at the lack of recognition for black actors.

“It’s time for big changes,” said Boone’s statement. “The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership (sic) … we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond.”

Noting that the Academy has been trying for four years to make changes to its membership, Boone stated, “We need to do more, and better and more quickly.”

Like herpes, Academy membership is for life, so achieving major change quickly is difficult. One proposal is to remove voting rights from inactive members (especially those above a certain age who no longer work in the industry).

If adopted, the suggestion would mostly remove voting rights from older, white men. While that would create a more diverse voting membership, it would probably require the turkeys to vote for Christmas to achieve it.

Ironically the suggestion is built, in part, on two arguably racist assumptions: that the large number of older, white males who aren’t voting for black candidates are doing so out of prejudice; and that black (or Asian/Latino/LGBTI) Academy members are equally prejudiced, and will vote to nominate more people like themselves,

Response to the Academy’s statement has been mixed, to put it mildly (which many of those expressing an opinion didn’t).

On part of the debate centred around the quality of work up for consideration this year. Not having seen all the performances, it’s impossible to say whose work might deserve a nomination, and whose shouldn’t have been.

Boone avoided picking up that particular hot potato, opening her statement, “I’d like to acknowledge the wonderful work of this year’s nominees,” before admitting, “I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion.”

Another area of debate is whether or not quotas (for either Academy membership or award nomination) are a practical or desirable tool to promote greater diversity, and to what extent applying quotas might devalue awards.

The challenges of quotas are in how to define and apply them. What should quotas be used to deliver: a reflection of the population at large, of the screen industry, or (in the case of acting awards) of the roles portrayed?

Most of those arguing for quotas suggest that they should deliver a reasonable reflection of the world we live in (aka America, for the Academy’s purposes). However, applying such quotas to the awards nominations would produce as many undesirable outcomes as desirable ones. African-American actors would achieve two nominations a year – or two more than at present. Hispanic actors would receive three. Asian American actors would be due one – and they’d be doing pretty well compared with some others.

It’s hard to imagine native Americans, including Hawaiians, would be thrilled at the prospect of one acting nomination every five years. A LGBTI Hawaiian contender would be entitled to a shot once every 50 years.

While such extrapolation seems ludicrous, it does demonstrate that it’s not easy to deliver a reasonable demographic representation of a country of over 300 million people via 20 acting nominations.

Have there been performances in the last two years by actors who aren’t white that were worthy of nomination? One would assume so, however few or many of the eligible films one has seen. Would a more diverse Academy membership have delivered different nominees? Again, one would assume so. Would the use of quotas make things better, or just different? That’s where the ground starts to get very muddy.

If the aim is to provide greater equality of opportunity or diversity, then quotas may help achieve that.

Screen Australia has recently committed to use quotas to support feature projects whose key personnel more fairly reflect that country’s population. One can debate the rights and wrongs of the strategy, but Screen Australia is a cultural funding agency with a cultural remit to support work that represents and presents Australians on screen. It has no obligation to support “the best” work, however one might define that,

It’s more difficult to argue that awards such as the Oscars, which by their nature attempt to quantify and reward achievement, could benefit from the application of quotas.

There’s no doubt that, with its 6,000+ members, the Academy (or even its voting membership) could far better reflect the world around it. That would be a pretty good place to get to. However, if the job of the Academy is to celebrate and reward the highest achievements in motion picture arts and sciences, quotas based on demographics would mean “best” is no longer the qualifying criterion – for either Academy membership or Oscar nomination.

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