The fact that it’s taken over 90 years for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to start to rectify its inequality is almost inconceivable, yet here we are. Per a recent press release, the institution behind the Academy Awards selections has invited a further 842 individuals to join its ranks, half of whom are women. Other coverage has picked up on the progress this signals, but I wonder why we’re so surprised at the news of a seemingly more representative crowd in 2019, when equal representation should be a given.
The Academy currently has 8,946 active members (9,794 including retired members), with 8,733 eligible to vote on the Oscars. While sending out nearly 850 invitations may seem steep, 2018 saw a record of 928 invitations, so suffice to say that the membership is broad. The list of invitees includes screenwriters Ritesh Batra (Photograph), Chinonye Chukwu (Clemency), Park Young-soo (Detective Dee) and Ryo Sakaguchi (Ant-Man and the Wasp), as well as Crazy Rich Asians director Jon Chu, Gemma Chan, and Winston Duke. A full list of the invitees in each category is available on this self-congratulatory Academy website.
Driven by the momentum of movements like Time’s Up, #OscarsSoWhite, and Frances McDormand’s call for an Inclusion Rider at the 2018 Oscars, it seems as if the message is finally starting to get across. But only to a degree. While we can certainly be pleased that the Academy is addressing the issue of disproportionate representation among its members, and a lot of coverage is given to hyperbole (a ‘whopping’ improvement in figures?) I beg to differ. Prior to any new members accepting, the fact remains that only 32% are women, still a woefully low figure for any kind of group — just about 1 in 3. I find it hard to believe that one of the most lucrative businesses operating today couldn’t make just a little more space for women, who have been involved even before the days of Mary Pickford in the late 1910s.
Last year I discussed the rise of female-led movies and why they were outperforming their male counterparts. There’s certainly an appetite for female-led material and personnel, so why is female representation still so paltry? Franchises like Marvel have attempted to bridge the gap with the release of Captain Marvel and the presence of Black Panther star Letitia Wright on the panel shows that their efforts are being recognized. But progress is moving at a glacial pace. Moreover, the announcement doesn’t seem to address the fact that there might still be gender disparity between its existing members: it doesn’t take a mathematician to realize that half of the new segment of members might be women, but that doesn’t equal half of the overall figure. From a PR perspective, I can imagine them brushing this aside, believing the maneuver to level the playing field.
Not to mention the less palatable issue of race. News accompanied the announcement that 29% of those invited to the body were people of color. This, we’re informed, is a significant uplift in the proportion of ethnic groups represented: from only 8% in 2015, and before any new members accept, the figure as it stands remains a meager 16%. Again, this is just 1 in 3 of the 842 new individuals — around 244 new members. Compared to the 8,946 active members — well, you do the math. People of color are still significantly outweighed by their white male counterparts, which is in no way reflective of the film industry output — or nation — as a whole.
With films like If Beale Street Could Talk and Always Be My Maybe successfully profiling African-American and Asian-American leads (with generous distribution packages), it stands to reason that the Academy should keep up with its streaming thoroughfares at the very least. Perhaps its memory is too short to recall that Beale Street and numerous others were awarded accolades at the Oscars just four months ago, and that a larger proportion of their respective casts and crews deserved more of a turnout. Of course, if this year’s results are anything to go by, then the institution isn’t to be trusted anyway, praising as it did the more vacuous of ‘representative’ cinema while true contenders from people of color were snubbed. Green Book’s ludicrous win signaled not only a tone-deaf misreading of the socio-political landscape, but rubbished any idea of a fair and objective value system. All the more with which to be disenfranchised.
It’s a shame that such a long-standing body of public figures isn’t doing more to embrace the wonderfully diverse talent in Hollywood. The gender and race disparity are still hot topics, and although female directors have tried to make strides in this area, pipeline projects are often hampered by risk-averse studios. In her book Backwards & In High Heels, film critic Alicia Malone details the roles of women (including women of color) throughout the history of the industry, and how change is imperative for a modern operational model. “I am hopeful that the EEOC investigation, the Representation Project, the Sundance Institute and Women in Film continue to create conversation and change. And I believe in the power of audiences to take these conversations and turn them into actions.”
It would be heartening to see that the deficit has been addressed through the Academy’s member invitations, were it not for the lingering inequality in both gender and race. We have a long way to go before we see a more representative selection, so it falls on our shoulders to seek out and support more fairly represented films, bringing them to the attention of the Academy. I’m hopeful that at least the 50% of new female members and the 29% POC will be able to make a dent in the Academy’s operations, and that we continue to see a more diverse slate of films, influenced by more forward-thinking and influential members of the film community.