Oscars diversity

Green Book, Best Picture 2018

Oscars diversity rules: meaningful change or whitewashing and tokenism?

“If the project results in more films like Green Book and Mulan, it will be all for naught.”

For years now, under the pressure of social media campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have adopted new strategies to increase diversity at the Oscars. These changes have included extending membership invitations to include more diverse voices and, in an effort to reward popular films, expanding the Best Picture category to nominate up to 10 films. There was a failed attempt to acknowledge blockbusters with the introduction of a Best Popular Film Category, which was quickly recanted after a backlash. This week, as part of that initiative, they outlined a new list of qualifications that films will need to meet to qualify for the top award. 

As of 2024, for films to be eligible for Best Picture Oscars, they must meet two out of the four criteria to increase diversity in stories and productions, outlined here. It’s quite clear that part of this package aims to push studios and production houses to develop and foster new talents that will hopefully result in a long term pay-off. Given the timeframe as well, studios and production companies have several years to adapt, so it’s unlikely that significant changes will be imposed on filmmakers who are already doing the bare minimum. The new regulations aren’t particularly stringent. Most nominated films from the past decade pass. (Some critics of the initiative pointed to films like Scorsese’s The Irishman as a potential casualty, but behind the scenes talent guarantees that it passes quite easily.)

It’s at this point, though, where it’s difficult not to be frustrated. The Academy, and Hollywood at large, seems to favour symbolic gestures over functional changes. Without careful enforcement and further resources allocated to creating new environments meant to truly support new voices, there is a lot of room to abuse the system and cycle young people through internships and training programs that potentially go nowhere. The potential for tokenism is high, which only means that those potentially enforcing these rules need to be open and willing to adapt. The question is, do these measures go far enough? 

The industry-wide response to #metoo revealed a need to address the heart of the issue. Greater awareness and public discussions on how to do better should only be the first step in long-term changes that affect workers. The problems related to #metoo also apply to diversity in the industry. Increased opportunities for under-represented groups should go hand in hand with a push to offer more generous benefits and services that will benefit workers who cannot rely on financial support from their family or savings to coast through low pay opportunities or a potential crisis. 

Putting the onus on studios to make changes with the hopes that the results will trickle down to the most vulnerable people ignores how inaccessible the industry remains. Without efforts to increase accessibility for workers to healthcare, childcare, fair wages and workplace safety, diversity initiatives can only go so far in fostering effective changes within the industry. 

While only time will tell whether the Oscars can enforce these rules in such a way that will be fair and productive, as a cynic, it isn’t easy to take too seriously the efforts of an industry that consistently rewards and celebrates films that commodify diversity. When studios like Disney push under-represented groups to the forefront and tell “empowering” stories, they often do so at the expense of complexity and humanity. These stories that are perceived by their makers as “above criticism” also shield work and creative conditions that, at best, reward uniformity, and at worst, collaborate with local officials committing genocide. If the project results in more films like Green Book and Mulan, it will be all for naught; all symbolic, with few significant changes. 

These issues don’t necessarily lie at the feet of the Academy, but rather an artistic ecosystem that is drowning under the influence of corporate interests. Hollywood asks us to be thankful they are now making movies (and earning hundreds of millions of dollars) starring groups of people they’ve long argued were not bankable. In telling these stories, they’ve also (mostly) missed the mark, privileging broad liberal ideas of representation over meaningful stories of lived experiences. 

The biggest problem doesn’t lie in the Academy’s choices, but rather the continued importance we continue to pay to it. We’ve known major Hollywood players like the Weinsteins have effectively bought nominations and even awards for decades. The system isn’t a reward for the best film, but a gesture of a collective body that wants to show their best face, which is often in the shape of a benign social picture. Relying on thousands of people to come together and vote for the best anything feels like a mixed bag, and it’s unsurprising that this method pretty consistently benefits harmless crowd-pleasers over challenging works of art. 

We need to stop looking to Hollywood for change. The kinds of films generally awarded by the Academy are benign American films with little long-term impact. Rewarding movies like Moonlight or Parasite remain the exception rather than the rule. When we talk about movies that offer true diversity in front of and behind the camera, the most radical political works are rarely made or distributed by the major players. 

That isn’t to say that the Academy should fade into obscurity, only that its value in determining great art should be taken with a grain of salt. The Academy does incredible work at funding film restoration and art. The Oscars serve as a larger-than-life fundraising event that preserves film history for the rest of the year. 

Hollywood has been plagued from its earliest days by moral policing, and some right-wing bodies are already calling censorship. These changes don’t amount to censorship, far from it, but they do require extra work from entertainment journalists and critics. As evidenced by the recent Mulan fiasco (genocide, remember?), it becomes increasingly clear that it is irresponsible to put faith in major corporate entities and review films without establishing a socio-political context. The whole idea that we should be shutting off our brain or praising companies that do the bare minimum with little to no innovation is increasingly ridiculous. 

Critics and journalists will have to hold studios to account. Films that outwardly project representation do not necessarily translate into good movies or more diverse stories. Hitting the new behind-the-scenes markers is not a free pass to make the same tired old films and turn around and claim this is what the people want when faced with criticism. Especially as studios like Disney grow increasingly adept at commodifying diversity and politics by pacifying and whitewashing them, we need great and thoughtful criticism more than ever.

The responsibility will be to make sure these changes are not merely symbolic. These new rules should only be the first step. Furthermore, it should also be a turning point for film audiences to start looking beyond Hollywood for cinema. Part of the problem does lie with us, the audience, for allowing ourselves to be spoon-fed so many mediocre films. It’s not that films depicting diversity or radical ideas, or simply great cinema don’t exist, it’s only that they’re rarely found at the Oscars. It seems unlikely these new rules will do much to change that. ■

For the complete list of Oscars diversity requirements, please visit the Academy website.

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