The new Oscars diversity rules: momentous or tokenistic?

The latest gambit from the Academy to up its woke credentials looks great on paper, but is vague in all the wrong places.

This week the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a new set of ‘representation and inclusion’ standards in the hope of diversifying the Oscars. The film industry’s biggest awards ceremony is now asking studios to meet a set of minority inclusion standards to be considered for Best Picture.

The Oscars has a spotty history with equality and has been criticised in the past for disproportionately rewarding white, heteronormative, and cisgender nominees and films. Whilst there’s been some effort in the last few years to make the ceremony and the industry as a whole look less ‘male and pale’ by passing the top honour to Parasite last year, Green Book the year before and, famously, 12 Years a Slave in 2014, these have widely been considered acts of peacocking that distract from continued under-representation behind the scenes.

The new rules plan to peel back behind the optics of Best Picture nominees to look at the whole diversity story of the film, which involves its entire cast and crew and their experiences working on set. Starting in 2024, all nominees for this prestigious award must prove that its makers aimed to be inclusive on several levels according to a list presented by the Academy. Think of the list like a compendium of woke Scout badges: you installed ramps on set and hired a number of disabled staff? That’s a badge. Your crew was 30% black and you had a gay lead actress? Two badges.

Whilst the new standards at least recognise that a representative Academy would involve more nuance than acknowledging that films in other languages can be just as good as American-made (a seemingly innocuous act that still got the President up in arms), there are significant issues with the proposal.

Most obviously, producers can pick and choose exactly which diversity badges they want to pin on their nominations. This means that for big studios like Warner Brothers or 20th Century Fox, many of the Academy’s standards are a walk in the park. Studio filmmakers likely already provide internships to an ethnically diverse group of people because they simply offer more internships. For Warner, the racial and LGBT+ inclusion standards will already be met as long as their employee demographic is statistically average for the state of California.

Smaller, indie filmmakers will struggle most to meet more rigorous standards of casting and production. Notably, a number of the options don’t involve representational statistics (e.g. our cast is 50% non-white) but literal tokens (e.g. one member of our production team is trans), which are harder for small studios to fulfil.

There are other concerns too. Whilst all woke badges are judged similarly, there’s an impact imbalance between say, hiring a certain number of BAME lighting operators and hiring the first trans actor in the lead role of a Best Picture nominee. Moreover, the definition of ‘minority’ becomes a thorny issue. For example, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite was considered a stigma-breaking choice as it represented people who are ethnic minorities by American standards, but the cast and crew were almost all members  of a majority ethnic group where the movie was actually shot in South Korea.

What’s more, none of the inclusion standards consider discrimination on the basis of class or religion.

Regulating an inherently creative industry without stifling artists is always going to be a tough ask, and it’s positive that the Academy is making moves to rectify its homogeneity. As Variety critic Clayton Davis put it in an op-ed, ‘The Academy isn’t telling Picasso what to put in his paintings. Still, if he wants to submit his artwork for an Oscar, he’s got to use more vibrant colors or invite a local young painter to watch his process.’

In the best of all possible worlds, these new rules will encourage studios and filmmakers to not just pander to the Academy but take a long hard look at the way they hire and the stories they choose to tell. We can only hope.

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