On Friday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced several changes to its rules that are aimed at diversifying its membership. I applaud this effort by president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the Board of Governors.
This is a good step toward moving the organization forward, from a place where but a fraction of members are minorities to one that better reflects the world we live in, and I’m sure much more can and will be done. While this story has rightfully garnered a lot of attention in recent weeks, much of the conversation mixes different issues that each deserve separate attention.
Certainly, the Academy is right to act immediately on diversifying the committees that govern its operations. I was on the Foreign Language Film Award Committee, and I have no doubt that there must be a substantial boost in the number of minorities that serve on all of the committees.
In addition, having more women and people of color in decision-making positions, who greenlight film slates, can only help increase the number of roles for minorities both in front of and behind the camera. In the most general terms, gender and racial equality are crucial. While women, African-Americans and Latinos have been mentioned in this regard, I would specifically add Indians and Asian-Americans to the list of those who suffer because of lack of roles.
Where this debate misses the point, though, is in the notion that a mostly white Academy membership specifically seeks out white nominees and votes for them. That doesn’t make sense. Rather, the Academy membership votes for who they feel needs to be nominated.
The films and actors who get nominated deserve to be nominated, and whether there are others who are equally deserving is more a question of taste. I joined the Academy in 1992, the same year that Satyajit Ray received his honorary Oscar, and I was one of its first Asian-American members. It was a great honor. From my personal experience interacting with Academy members over the years, I know each branch votes with integrity and to honor the best of their craft.
The recent history of major categories bears this out. “Slumdog Millionaire” would not have won Best Picture if white people only voted for movies featuring white people. Similarly, Ang Lee, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro G. Iñárritu would not have been honored with Best Director Oscars. “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained,” which won major Academy Awards for telling stories from slaves’ points of view, would have been ignored. And so on.
(Ironically, up until two years ago, one paid less attention to diversity because films featuring African-Americans had received strong Oscar support. It is strange that the overwhelmingly white slates of recent nominees have gone against this tide. This is a greater cause for concern, since it feels like the slates being greenlit are more Caucasian in the last couple of years. I hope this will change going forward.)
Oscar voters should continue to keep these fair principles in mind. If it is perceived that an Academy Award is in some way not given to the best, then the reputation of the shiny golden statute is tarnished. That is not a good thing for anybody. Having grown up in India, religiously watching the Academy Awards each year in my hometown of Chennai as well as on the road during the years when I played professional tennis, I know how important it is for film fans around the world, especially a world as connected as the one we live in today, to know that Academy members vote from their heart and emotions and not based on color, race or gender.
Ultimately, our goal should be equality, with women and all races included in significant, representative numbers. The Academy has taken the first steps to putting in place initiatives that will add more women and ethnicities to its ranks. This must be followed through — and the time is ripe to do it, without in any way lowering the bar for who should be invited to join. Everyone has to earn their place. Rising stars like Ryan Coogler, Oscar Isaac, Michael B. Jordan, Cary Fukunaga and Ramin Bahrani, to name just a few, have earned immediate consideration.
These are the ways forward. Boycotts are not the answer. Change must come — as it does now — from the inside.