Oscars 2018: The Academy appears to be diversifying

Dr Yannis Tzioumakis is a Reader in Film and Media Industries in the University of Liverpool’s Department of Communication and Media

The nominations for the 90th Academy Awards were seemingly good news for all those seeking diversity and its recognition by the institution of American cinema.

Leading the pack with 13 nominations was The Shape of the Water, an indie film production directed and co-written by Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro. Greta Gerwig, known from her many parts in small independent films from the mid-2000s onwards, was nominated for both Best Director and Best Screenplay for her first effort as a filmmaker, Lady Bird, a small film that also received 3 more major nominations (Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress).

But perhaps the most eye-catching film on the Oscar nomination list was Get Out, written, directed and co-produced by African American Jordan Peele. Despite an established career as an actor and writer, particularly in the medium of television, Peele had not directed a feature film prior to Get Out. He received 3 nominations for all his involvement in the film’s production while Get Out received a 4th nomination for its young star, Daniel Kaluuya, another performer with a substantial resume on television.

Equally impressive was the fact that Get Out is a horror film, a genre rarely considered in the Oscars irrespective of the colour or gender of the talent involved in it, which potentially is a sign that the Academy is looking for renewal in other directions.

Other films on the list that would satisfy further the advocates of diversity in the Academy’s choices include Call Me By Your Name (a film directed by Italian Luca Guadagnino and exploring the sexual relationship of two men in Northern Italy of the early 1980s), the nominations for 2 African American women in the Actress in the Supporting Role category (Octavia Spencer and Mary J. Blige), four women, two African American men, one Asian-American and one Mexican man in the 2 screenwriting categories (Dee Rees, Emily V. Gordon, Vanesa Taylor and Greta Gerwig; Virgil Williams and Jordan Peele; Kumail Nanjiani and Guillermo del Toro, respectively), while major African American star Denzel Washington clocked his 8th nomination, the6th for Best Actor, for Roman J. Israel Esquire.

Even in the technical categories, this year’s nominations made history with Rachel Morrison becoming the first ever woman to be nominated in the Best Cinematography category, showing that it is there where more work needs to be done in terms of opening up Hollywood to practitioners other than white men.

And then of course it is also who was left out of these nominations, who made way for all these young dynamic and diverse nominees. This list is equally impressive: Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg for The Post, the kind of quality political drama that has always been showered with nominations in years past; James Franco who was involved in multiple roles in the critically acclaimed The Disaster Artist missed on all categories (amidst allegations of sexual misconduct against him); Jake Gyllenhaal, who missed on a nomination in Roman J. Israel Esquire, despite being considered as giving as strong a performance as Denzel Washington; and perhaps most surprisingly Martin McDonagh for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which otherwise received 9 nominations.

So is this a tell-tale sign that the Academy of Motion Pictures is finally diversifying? Have all the bitter criticisms of the last few years and the pressures applied to it started to pay off? It is too soon to say whether, indeed, this is the case. There have been many instances when almost a total lack of diversity in the Academy Award nominations in particular years was followed by a year when things seem to be moving forward only to return to the old story the year after.

But what makes the future perhaps a bit more positive is that following two bad years for the showcase of diverse talent (2015 and 2016), which gave rise to the ultra-successful hashtag #Oscars So White, the Academy responded by inviting over 300 new members in its 17 branches in order to shake up and diversify their membership. Furthermore, in late 2015 the Academy instigated the A2020 initiative, a 5 year plan aiming at further improving the diversity of its own staff and governance, with a view to make the necessary changes in order to bring the industry’s practices closer to the times.

These and other initiatives seemed to bring some immediate relief in last year’s Oscars when, despite the controversy, Moonlight won the Award for Best Picture in 2017. With this even more diverse cohort of nominees in this year’s awards one is certainly confronted with promising signs for the future.

However, unless nominations like the ones announced yesterday become the norm for a sustained period of time, and therefore cease to be newsworthy, only then will we be able to gauge the extent to which the Academy and the industry itself is changing.

Perhaps more important, such changes should not only concern hiring practices, pay gaps and ways of showcasing practitioners and performers from diverse backgrounds. They should most certainly extend to creating a safe working environment for vulnerable employees and to providing the structures so that those who abuse their power can be held into account swiftly and decisively.

There is certainly a momentum that points towards all these directions. The real question is whether this momentum and the gains made in the past two years can be the springboard for more fundamental changes. The ‘right’ results on Oscar night can show if this process will continue.

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