The Academy Awards have set new diversity standards, but to what end?

It’s difficult to think of a film that wouldn’t clear this low bar.


Charles Bramesco


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences curried a lot of public favor when they bestowed their Best Picture prize on crowd-pleasing favorite Parasite at this year’s Oscars, but they’ve still got plenty of face to save. Entertainment industry activists continue to take the awards program to task for a lack of diversity in their nominees and the films they nominate, and now the organization appears to take a major step toward remedying that.

An announcement labeled “Inclusion and Representation Standards” lays out a plan to encourage a wider variety of new voices and perspectives in Hollywood. From now on, any film submitted for Academy eligibility must fulfill at least two of four criteria laid out in the interest of de-emphasizing hegemonies of race and gender both in front of and behind the camera.

The first litmus test concerns “On-Screen Representation, Themes, and Narratives,” dictating that a film must either feature a nonwhite actor in a leading or “significant supporting” role, or that 30 per cent of all actors must be women, nonwhite, LGBT+, or cognitively/physically disabled, or that the “main storyline” be focused on one of the underrepresented groups previously listed.

The second applies these same benchmarks to behind-the-scenes talent, dictating that personnel from those groups must head up at least two departments, including casting, cinematography, score composing, costuming, directing, editing, hairstyling, makeup, producing, production design, set decorating, sound, VFX, or writing.

The third accounts for “Industry Access and Opportunities,” stating that a film’s distributor or financing company must provide paid internships or apprenticeships to members of the aforementioned marginalized groups, as well as offering training to below-the-line workers along the same demographic lines. And the fourth criterion extends to “Audience Development,” meaning that the presiding studio or film company must have “multiple in-house senior executives” on the marketing, publicity, and distribution teams from the under-acknowledged groups.

That sure sounds like a lot of boxes to tick. In practical terms, however, this may not spur all that much change. Let’s consider some of the films that have drawn heat in recent years for their lack of diversity, and see just how easily this low bar is cleared.

For example, one might assume that Dunkirk, a film with a cast made up entirely of stern-faced white men, would be barred by these new requirements. However, it was produced by human woman Emma Thomas (Christopher Nolan‘s partner and longtime collaborator), and the makeup and hairstyling departments were headed by Luisa Abel and Patricia DeHaney respectively.

Going through IMDb and investigating the racial background of Nolan’s crew is beyond my research capabilities, but suffice it to say that it would only take one non-white person to put him over the top on the first criterion. Add to that the fact that Thomas also runs the production company Syncopy, and that one Johanna Fuentes currently sits as the Executive Vice President for Worldwide Corporate Communications and Public Affairs at Warner Bros, and the movie is good to go.

The point here is that it would take very little to satisfy these new demands, and that even the most seemingly status-quo-supporting films make the cut. To this same effect, movies with hidebound racial politics that nonetheless feature Black actors – your Crashes, your Green Books – have nothing to worry about.

While clearly a well-intended gesture, these new rules leaves a great deal of room for refining and improvement. With a seriously diminished number of films competing for its honors this year, the Oscars will undoubtedly look different than they ever have, but the newly passed standards will do what they can to steer this new era in a positive direction.

Published 9 Sep 2020

Tags: Academy Awards Oscars

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