Every other Tuesday, WOMEN AT LIBERTY provides Leadership Tuesdays, a platform for a variety of voices and resources to develop, encourage and strengthen women leaders.
The 2015 #OscarsSoWhite Campaign by activist, attorney and Managing Editor of BroadwayBlack.com, April Reign, brought front and center Hollywood’s diversity issues. As I’m sure you remember, that year all the Oscar nominees in the “best” acting categories were white. Selma, a highly acclaimed film about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights protests in Selma, Alabama directed by Ava Duvernay,
received nominations for Best Original Song and Best Picture, but was overlooked for the individual performances of its nearly all black cast and director. Though, the movie did win the Oscar for Best
Song “Glory” written by John Legend and Common.
Why did Ms. Isaacs move so quickly to address the Oscar’s diversity issue? According to Pew Research, “Americans are more racially and ethnically diverse than in the past, and the U.S. is projected to be even more diverse in the coming decades.” (i) The #OscarSoWhite campaign resonated with a lot of people and caught fire in the media fueled the highly visible voices of “BlackTwitter”.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who had made history in 2013 as the first black woman and only the third woman to hold the position of president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the non-profit organization that produces the Oscars), knew that she would have to move quickly on responding to this issue. One day after the Oscar nominations were announced and the #OscarSoWhite hashtag was born, she did an interview with the Associated Press to address the issue and stressed the Academy’s commitment to “to seeking out diversity of voice and opinion”.
Minority movie goers in the U.S. represented more than one third of the total movie goers in 2014. If a mass boycott caught on, the Academy could suffer a major decrease in its Oscars’ television audience which is estimated to be worth $75M. The industry was already dealing with a downward trend in total box office tickets sold. The dollars at stake for the U.S. film industry were $10.3B and three times that amount globally. Cheryl Isaacs and the leadership of the Academy knew that they would have to quickly
and very publicly implement change or risk alienating a sizable group of minority movie goers. The Asian Pacific Media Coalition released a statement the day after the 2015 Oscar nominations that succinctly summed up the Academy’s problem: “It behooves Hollywood – as an economic imperative, if not a moral
one – to begin more closely reflecting the changing face of America.” (ii)
You have to applaud Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the Academy for how they responded to the issues once they were public. They did not blame the protestors for speaking out. They did not stick their heads in the sand and continue business as usual. They took action. That year to increase its membership diversity, the Academy invited a record number of 322 new members to join its ranks of voting
But in 2016, lightning struck twice and no black directors and actors were nominated in the acting and directing categories. This time actress Jada Pinkett Smith and director Spike Lee announced that they would boycott the 2016 Oscars. These very public and highly visible protests reignited the #OscarSoWhite hashtag and media firestorm.
In a press release, Ms. Isaacs made a public commitment on behalf of the Academy that the
membership going forward would be more inclusive of women and minorities by “[doubling] the number of women and diverse members by 2020”. Then the Academy took more aggressive steps to
shake up its membership pool. After the changes were approved in an emergency meeting, it sent out 683 invitations for membership, more than twice the number of the previous year’s 322 invitees. The new invitees included 46% more women and 41% more minorities.
In 2017, the Oscar announced its most diverse lists of actor nominees including six black actors and 7 nonwhite actors overall. The Academy’s actions netted a record total of 18 Blacks artists who were nominated for Oscars in 2017. Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis won the Best Actor and Best Actress in A
Supporting Role awards. Director Barry Jenkins and cast of Moonlight, and film editor, Joi McMillon won Best Picture and Best Film Editing awards, respectively.
The Academy’s efforts will not solve all the problems regarding the type of films presented for the public to see and the diversity of actors that get work and are nominated, but it is definitely a step in the right direction. Kudos to them for that, but more work has to be done in investing in minority films and productions. This, however, is a subject for another day. Today, we recognized the leadership of Ms.
Isaacs and the Academy and we hope their efforts to implement change increases and this trend to be more inclusive and diverse continues.
- Global Entertainment and Media Outlook: 2016-2020: Cinema, PriceWaterhouse, http://pwc.com/us/en/industry/entertainment-media-outlook/cinema.html
- Brent Lang, “Cheryl Boone Isaacs on Oscars Diversity Push: ‘The Door Has Opened’, 9/10/16, http://variety.com/2016/film/markets-festivals/oscars-diversity-academy-president-cheryl-boone-isaacs-1201856989/
- Erich Schwartzel and Ben Fritz, “Fewer Americans Go to the Movies”, Wall Street Journal, 3/25/14, http://wsj.com/articles/SB/10001424052702303949704579461813982237426
- “2017 Oscar Nominations Show Black Artists’ Gains”, 1/25/17, colesmithey.com
i) D’Vera Cohn and Andrea Caumont, “10 Demographics Trends That Are Shaping The U.S. and the World”, 3/31/16,
ii) Oscars 2015: Film Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs Speaks Out About Lack of Diversity In Nominations,
For more information on Leadership Tuesdays and WOMEN AT LIBERTY, click here.