Academy Members Applaud Oscars’ Push for Diversity

“They’re not embarrassed, they’re disgusted” by the nominations, one voter says

Oscars Chris Rock

Immediate reaction within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to president Cheryl Boone Isaacs’ statement promising “dramatic steps” to increase diversity ranged from skepticism that AMPAS could make real changes to enthusiasm over the idea of diversity as a true Oscars priority.

But most members surveyed by TheWrap applauded Isaacs’ comments, in which she described herself as “heartbroken and frustrated” over the nominations that excluded many potential black nominees.

And Isaacs was not even the first Academy official to issue a call for diversity on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — she was just the first to do so publicly.

Early in the day, according to members who spoke to TheWrap, screenwriter Phil Alden Robinson, a member of the Academy’s Board of Governors and the board’s secretary, sent an email to other members and governors urging that each branch make a major push for increased diversity.

Robinson called on governors to examine the membership requirements within their branches with an eye to bringing in more minority members, and also encouraged them to identify existing minority members within their branch who would be willing to run for office to make the board more diverse.

Isaacs is currently the only African-American member of the Board of Governors, and one of only 17 women on the 51-member board. She issued her statement after a public outcry over the failure of Academy voters to nominate any non-white acting nominees for the second consecutive year.

Among the African-American performers who were overlooked in Oscars nominations: Michael B. Jordan for “Creed,” Idris Elba for “Beasts of No Nation,” Will Smith for “Concussion” and the cast of “Straight Outta Compton,” which was nominated for screenplay by the Writers Branch (typically the most adventurous AMPAS branch) but left out of the Best Picture and acting races.

“They’re not embarrassed today,” one Academy member and former governor said. “They’re disgusted.”

The steps urged by Robinson could be part and parcel of the campaign described by Isaacs, which focuses on the invitations to membership that will be sent out in the spring of this year.

“The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership,” she wrote. “In the coming days and weeks we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond.”

That emphasis dovetailed with the opinion of one member who supported Isaacs’ statements and told TheWrap: “The problem is not the nominations. It’s the makeup of the Academy, and more than that the makeup of Hollywood.”

But other members were skeptical of the organization’s ability to truly change the makeup or biases of the Academy, which includes almost 6,300 voting members. “Any way you slice it, it’s a knee-jerk reaction,” one member said, who believed the way to increase the diversity of nominations would be to expand the Best Picture field to 10 (which would presumably have included “Straight Outta Compton”) or turn the nomination voting over to select committees instead of the general membership, the way the Television Academy handles Emmy nominations.

With Isaacs’ statement focusing entirely on the admission of members later this year, it raises the question of whether an organization the size of the Academy can be changed significantly just through an influx of new members. Many AMPAS-watchers have suggested that any real Academy makeover would have to also include purging the voting rolls of older members who have not worked in the movie industry in years or even decades.

That, however, would be a huge step that would likely anger an enormous number of members, and one that Isaacs’ statement does not address.

“There’s an argument to be made that you should have to be an active participant in the industry in order to be eligible to vote,” one member said. “But eliminating voting members would require a massive bylaws change.”

Added the member, “The irony is, if Hollywood is not open to diversity, then we’re in real trouble as a country, because Hollywood is supposed to be liberal and open.”