The Oscars are pushing for diversity in the areas where they can.
But the biggest, most visible area is the one they can’t control.
That’s the dilemma that faces Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, AMPAS CEO Dawn Hudson and Oscar show producers David Hill and Reginald Hudlin — and the dilemma that no doubt factored into the choice of Chris Rock to host the 88th Academy Awards in February.
Yes, Rock is a comic star who’s hosted the show before and clearly has the skill set to handle a tough gig. But hiring the African-American comedian and actor to serve as the emcee of Hollywood’s biggest night on a show co-produced by a African-American producer, Hudlin, and no doubt featuring an appearance by the African-American Academy president, Isaacs, is also a public statement, and something the organization can control.
Having African-American actors and directors competing in the marquee categories, on the other hand, is out of their hands — and once again, it’s unlikely to happen.
Apart from supporting-actor contenders Idris Elba (“Beasts of No Nation”) and Samuel L. Jackson (“The Hateful Eight”), lead actor hopeful Will Smith (“Concussion”) and the well-liked longshot Best Picture possibility “Straight Outta Compton,” this year’s top awards contenders are once again white people starring in stories about white people.
A year after the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was born, Rock can make jokes about that — and make no mistake, the outspoken comic certainly will. But he can’t change it.
And until Hollywood makes more prestige movies with African-American talent, and Academy voters recognize them with nominations and awards the way they recognized “12 Years a Slave,” Oscar producers will be limited to putting black faces on the stage of the Dolby Theatre and talking vaguely about the importance of diversity.
“This is absolutely a priority for us — but it’s not just a matter of a black person, a Latin person, a gay person or a woman,” Hudlin told TheWrap when he was hired to produce the show in September.
“When you celebrate all kinds of movies, when we embrace everything that we love even though it might not be a traditional Oscar movie, that automatically brings diversity. And that makes things more reflecting of the real audience.”
In other words, barring a groundswell of voter support for “Compton” or “Creed,” the Academy knows that its show will have to recognize films that aren’t “traditional Oscar movies” to embrace diversity among its nominees.
This is not a new dilemma: Jesse Jackson threatened to lead a protest outside the Oscars in 1996 over that year’s all-white nominees, until he was dissuaded from picketing a show that featured an African-American co-producer (Quincy Jones) and host (Whoopi Goldberg).
But it is a dilemma that has become more of a concern for the Academy in recent years. The push for a more diverse membership began in earnest in 2013, when Hudson and Isaacs’ predecessor, Hawk Koch, spoke to each branch’s executive committee to encourage them to invite more minorities to join the Academy.
“Diversity has been a huge buzzword within this administration,” said one committee member.
And while it certainly wasn’t an affirmative-action program that is bringing Spike Lee a Honorary Academy Award next month after years of being overlooked by AMPAS voters, that honor was another sign of a conscious attempt to widen the organization’s reach and change its public face.
But on the big show, the Academy’s marquee event, the numbers don’t look good. Only seven out of the last 100 acting nominees were black: Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in “The Help,” Denzel Washington in “Flight,” Quvenzhane Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Barkhad Abdi in “Captain Phillips” and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o in “12 Years a Slave.”
And the Academy can’t tell its members not to vote for white actors; it must hope that the right movies come along, and that voters recognize them when they do.
In the meantime, it can publicly acknowledge the dilemma by putting the microphone in the hands of a guy who’s guaranteed to shine a spotlight on the elephant in the room.
The first time Rock hosted the show, in 2005, the acting nominees included Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo from “Hotel Rwanda,” Morgan Freeman for “Million Dollar Baby” and Jamie Foxx with a pair of nominations, for “Ray” and “Collateral.”
“We have, like, four black nominees tonight,” Rock said in his monologue. “It’s kinda like the Def Oscar Jam.”
What kind of nickname awaits this year’s show?