Oscars 2014: How Much Diversity Can We Expect?

Posted by Kitty Ku & filed under Film, Media, Pop Culture.

Historic Oscar winners Halle Berry and Denzel Washington in 2002. Photograph: Frederick M Brown/Getty Images
Historic Oscar winners Halle Berry and Denzel Washington in 2002. Photograph: Frederick M Brown/Getty Images

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According to Entertainment Weekly, “Diversity is an emotion-packed word more nuanced than one article or one year. But it should always be an ongoing topic of conversation in Hollywood until it stops being an issue, which it hasn’t.”

We’ve all seen the statistics about the diversity gap at the Oscars before, but they are still shocking and worth repeating. Since its inception 85 years ago, there is still a noticeable lack of diversity in Academy’s list of award-winners: only one woman of colour has ever won the Academy Award for Best Actress (Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball) and only one woman has ever won the Academy Award for Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker). Men of colour haven’t fared better: only six have ever won the Academy Award for Best Actor. But the Oscars have been changing slowly year-by-year. Two years ago we saw Octavia Spencer win Best Supporting Actress with her iconic role in The Help. Two years before that, Monique Angela Hicks won Best Supporting Actress for Precious. Let’s not forget Ang Lee’s Life of Pi which swept four wins, the most of that night, including Best Director.

When it comes to the Academy Awards, representing greater ethnic and racial diversity in the acting categories has been a slow climb, but they are certainly making an effort to improve bit by bit each year. This year’s Academy Awards promise to be one of the most inclusive ever, especially for people of colour. As many as a dozen Black filmmakers, actors, and actresses are expected to be in the running for Oscars in major categories such as director, actor, and supporting actress.

For the first time, this year’s Oscar for best director could go to a Mexican, Alfonso Cuaron, for the much-buzzed about film, Gravity or to a Black Brit, Steve McQueen for his film, 12 Year’s a Slave. The same film’s lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is nominated for an award and so is his Kenyan co-star Lupita Nyong’o, who is in fact born in Mexico.

Though this year’s nominees are diverse, the problem still remains the fact that the people who vote for the Oscars are not.

Academy Award infographic. Credit: The Huffington Post.

The overall group of 6,028 Academy Award voters remains much more white than the diverse group of filmmakers likely to be shortlisted for the best work in 2013’s movies, according to a Los Angeles Times investigation. They found that:

Even with the 432 new voting members, the overall academy is still 93% white, a decrease of less than 1% from what The Times found in a 2012 membership study, and 76% male, also a less than 1% decrease from what The Times found two years ago.

Though the Academy Awards has a long way to go to make a new image for themselves, they took a step in the right direction last summer when Cheryl Boone Isaacs, one of the few female African American executives in Hollywood, was named president. Boone Isaacs is the first Black president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and only the third female president.

“It’s a signal that Hollywood in general is being much more inclusive, much more aware of different voices,” says Boone Isaacs. “This is a great medium, and we really want to keep it fresh and be more inclusive,” she says. “The Academy has really pushed forward, and I know my election is part of this … a recognition of the diversity that’s out there that has been able to rise.”

Boone Isaacs says her goal is diversity, realizing that the Academy’s membership reflects the monochromatic film industry. Though it is still primarily white male, to open the ranks, she invited more than 400 people to apply for membership, many of them younger and people of colour. She wants to strip the Academy Awards’ identity as one of the most exclusive clubs. This year we’re seeing more women and more minorities in the voting ranks, and they’re slowly changing the face of the Academy, reflecting changes in the film industry.

Despite all the facts showcasing how we can expect a push in the right direction, where we can find more diverse nominees and voting members, it is still a little early to celebrate as it will take time to completely end the lack of diversity represented in Hollywood. But tonight at the Academy Awards, with a new president in the office, the Oscars will at least have a new image.

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