The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a club with entrance rules. You get nominated, you get in. You get an honorary award, you get in.
That’s it.* You can’t kick out the old white guys because they are old white guys. You can’t make new rules for how to get in without changing the whole nature of the club. Which is: motion picture artists and scientists nominate and vote for motion picture artists and scientists.
The acting awards are split by gender. Why? There is no female director award, or male writing award. Glancing over the field of Best Actress nominees for any given year will give a kind of window onto the industry that year. Most leads of most films are male characters, written by men. Some years, this year included, there are strong films featuring true female lead characters.
But in years past, were it not split by gender, the acting categories would have often been exclusively male. And the cycle would continue, Oscar® winning male actors would be rewarded, and as a result there would be less reason to produce films from a female perspective.
Since The Crying Game and Boys Don’t Cry, and one might say up to The Danish Girl, this gender split has had an edge of ‘olden days’ as well.
Should we get rid of the gender split? Nope, it’s tradition, and women are still not on a level playing field, as the Sony hack exposed last year. Jennifer Lawrence, the new perennial nominee, only now has the clout to get equal pay for equal work.
Which brings us to race. They can not and should not and will not ever have a racial split in any category, and there is no conceivable way they could ensure representation of diversity in the nominating process, because of the rules of the club. It seemed more egregious last year with Selma in the running, or almost any year Spike Lee has a film released. This year’s Concussion and Beasts of No Nation are simply not as widely seen or discussed. Creed, perhaps. Haven’t seen it – although the nostalgic I-was-17-when-Rocky-came-out-root-for-the-underdog-no-matter-how-obvious-or-corny does make me curious.
So, it’s slow. By attrition the club’s membership will lose the old white man edge, just like American society. Can you make anyone appreciate a piece of art that they might not be predisposed to watch in the first place? You can persuade, cajole, plead, ask, demand, debate – but you cannot make it happen.
I love film. Usually not so keen on certain genres: war movies, sports movies, historic period pieces. But when exposed to superior films in any of these genres, I will watch, enjoy, appreciate. Because it is art (and science, or I wouldn’t be able to watch it!).
It’s all about the exposure. I like the discussion, the calling out of the White Washed Oscars® this year. But you can’t force a vote. You can’t force a private club with clear rules to change its rules. The rules are not discriminatory. The industry may be. The voters may be. But the rules are not.
Do I want to see more films with different leads? Of course! The arts are diverse, and diverse representation makes the experience fuller, more relatable – not less.
The arts are durable. Sometimes changes are quick and permanent (sound? colour film?). Sometimes change is slow, but it is still inevitable.
We judge historic societies by the art they left behind. We don’t know what journey the art took on its way. Who was the Mozart and who was the Salieri? We just have the art. As it should be. The art will speak for itself in the end.
Van Gogh didn’t sell in his lifetime. If Idris Elba does not get an Oscar®, he will still have a career we can appreciate and enjoy. I hope he gets a lot more opportunity to fill out this career, regardless of awards.
Art is both proactive and reactive. Art is a living thing. We feed it or starve it. We watch it grow. It stagnates, it evolves.
I’m still going to watch the Oscars® either way. And outside of the performance categories, there is often greater diversity (in more categories than simple gender or racial splits) than you ever considered. Those technically artistic and scientific categories most people do not enjoy? Listen to their acceptance speeches – these are artists (and scientists!).
*and by sponsorship by members, which is pretty similar to nominations by members. It’s the Lodge, not the government. http://www.oscars.org/about/join-academy