The Academy is Working on Diversity, One Branch at a Time

By  · Published on June 30th, 2016

The Directors and Actors guilds saw the biggest influx of interesting new members.

Yesterday, the Academy of Motion Arts and Picture Sciences announced their 2016 class of new members. How many made the final cut? A robust 683, 41% of which are people of color and 43% female. It’s about time, Academy. The voting group behind the Oscars has recently come under fire for the #OscarsSoWhite controversy because, for the past two years, every director and actor nominated has been white. Journalists, activists, and fans alike took to social media and the press to bring light to this issue and, finally, it seems their protests have been heard.

The branches that saw the largest influx of members were the directors and actors. On the actor’s side, notable names include Michael B. Jordan, Idris Elba, Emma Watson, Brie Larson, and many more expected and well-known names. With these young and hip names, I am confident that the actor’s branch is in good hands. Maybe they will even help solve the category fraud issue.

Names added to the director’s branch, arguably the most powerful branch, were a little more all over the place. New kids in town Lenny Abrahamson, Ryan Coogler, László Nemes, and Cary Joji Fukunaga were obvious choices for inclusion. Abrahamson and Nemes were nominated at the 2015 ceremony, where Nemes won for “Best Foreign Language Film,” and Coogler and Fukunaga were believed by many to be snubbed for Best Director for Creed and Beasts of No Nation, respectively.

They also included many alpha-female directors like Ana Lily Amirpour, Marielle Heller, Sarah Gavron, Lynne Ramsay, Lexi Alexander, Sam Taylor-Johnson, and Gillian Robespierre. It will certainly be interesting to see how these heavyweight names affect Oscar nominations this year where there are really only a few people of color and female directors generating buzz.

They also decided to include many controversial and off the wall directors, like Abdellatif Kechiche, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Xavier Dolan. These three names have had films booed at festivals, miss out on major Oscar nominations, been accused of poor and exploitative working conditions, and started beefs with other filmmakers. Will they aid in inspiring off-beat and unusual choices that the director’s category so dearly needs? Or, will they just continue to generate a giant hullabaloo wherever they go?

The director’s branch is the branch, which I think, that has been stuck in the past the longest because it is so strongly tied to Best Picture. It is extremely rare for a director to get nominated without a corresponding Best Picture nom. Also, Best Picture nominations, historically and predominately, have been about white men, which made sense since, up until two years ago, the Academy was 94% male and 76% white.

In all 88 years of Oscars, only four women and three African American men have been nominated for Best Director. At the 87th ceremony in 2014, the Academy had the chance to make history by nominating Ava DuVernay for directing the brilliant Selma. DuVernay would have been the first African American woman to ever be nominated for Best Director. Instead, they played it safe and nominated Morten Tyldum for his predictable and bland The Imitation Game, which followed the pattern of being about a white man and getting a Best Picture nomination. Selma stood out from the sea of misunderstood white men because of its distinctly African American story from an African American and female voice.

These new names also bring in the possibility for the Oscars to branch out in terms of genre. Amirpour directed a vampire western, Coogler made the Rocky sequel Creed, Taylor-Johnson is responsible for Fifty Shades of Grey, and Watson has been campaigning with the UN for gender equality. There is so much potential for female-lead, comedy, sci-fi, horror, and fantasy genre films to break into Best Picture and that is thrilling. White male drama films, look out.

Whatever the case, the Academy absolutely needed to make a dramatic change in their membership and, with these members, it seems like they are finally moving into the 21st century. These choices, I hope, will yield nominations for women, people of color, and genre films about subjects other than white men. So far, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is the 2016 Oscar frontrunner for Best Picture, Director, and Actor. How awesome would it be if Parker won for all three of those categories? With so many outspoken, young, relevant, and diverse new members just added to the Academy, it is exciting to hope for that sweep. I guess we will have to wait until the movies come out and Oscar nominations are announced in January, but, until then, welcome to the present, Academy.

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