How the new Best Picture criteria fits into the Oscars’ diversity problem

Understanding how the new measures are meant to make a difference, and how they may fail

The Academy has been taking steps toward better representation.
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In January 2015, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the list of nominees for that year’s Oscars. In the four acting categories, all 20 nominations went to white actors.

One fan, April Reign, tweeted out her frustration with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. It went viral.

Yet, 2016’s acting nominees still had no people of colour.

The Oscars’ relationship with representation and diversity has historically been one fraught with failures. From the award ceremony’s beginning in 1929 to 2016, only 6.4 per cent of the total 1,668 acting nominations went to non-white actors.

This year, the Academy announced new criteria films must satisfy to qualify for a Best Picture nomination. This move comes as the latest in a series of changes made by the Academy in the wake of the significant criticism sparked by the back-to-back years of all-white nominations in 2015 and 2016.

A week after the 2016 Oscar nominees were revealed, the Academy committed to doubling the number of female and racial minority members by 2020—a commitment which was much less significant than it sounds.

For context, a 2012 study by the LA Times found Academy members were 94 per cent white and 77 per cent male.

The past few years have seen several firsts on the Oscar stage. In 2017, Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim actor to win an Academy Award. In 2019, a record 15 women took home Oscars, and three of the four acting awards went to people of colour. This year, the Korean-language film Parasite made history by winning four Oscars, including Best Picture.

But in 2018 and 2020, no people of colour won an Oscar in any of the acting categories.

Despite these ups and downs, the Academy has fulfilled its 2016 promise to increase member diversity by this year. Its members are now only 81 per cent white and 67 per cent male.

The Academy’s latest change, announced earlier this month, establishes four standards to promote diversity in film—a first for the industry. New films must fulfil at least two of these four standards to be eligible for a Best Picture nomination, beginning in 2024.

Each of the four standards focuses on representation within a subset of a film’s team, including the cast, crew, and technical roles.

For example, Standard A requires that one of the main actors is a person of colour, or that 30 per cent of the minor roles are from underrepresented groups, or that the film’s storyline centers one of these groups, which include women, people of colour, LGBT+ people, and people with disabilities.

Reception to the new rules was divided, with some film-watchers praising the Academy for promoting inclusivity for marginalized groups, while others consider the standards tokenizing and restrictive.

There’s also concern that the rules are too lenient.

Neither representation onscreen nor behind the camera are mandatory. Standard A is just one of the four standards: a film can qualify by fulfilling Standards C and D, which target the marketing team and interns, positions easily filled by underrepresented groups with no impact on the story.

Although the new criteria may make it seem like the Academy is rocking the boat, 71 percent of the top grossing films of 2019 would be eligible for Best Picture under the new guidelines.

In fact, 11 of the last 15 Best Picture winners satisfy Standards A and B. The Irishman, 1917, The Two Popes, Joker, and La La Land are all recent Oscar nominees with scant diversity that would also still qualify.

The new standards also have no bearing on the quality of representation. Films with problematic or racist representation can still feature a person of colour in a leading role. Stories centered on underrepresented groups can still be insulting or reductive.

Beneath the surface, the new criteria for Best Picture nominations don’t seem to challenge the existing Hollywood patterns as much as they might purport to. What may have seemed like a great stride toward representation in film and behind the camera may only serve as a little step in the right direction.

Still, it’s encouraging to see the Academy commit to representation in films and making that known by intertwining their beliefs into the selection process.

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