Who the Heck is ‘The Academy’?

Between the stunning outfits and star-studded red carpets, the Oscars masks an unpleasant but obvious truth: the glaring, lack of diversity in Oscar Nominations each and every year. This year only two of the actors/actresses nominated this year were people of colour and no female directors were nominated. This leaves me wondering, who is this so called “Academy”, who do they think they are and why are they the ones who gets to decide who gets an Oscar?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded in 1927, by Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn – Mayer (MGM), one of the world’s oldest film studios. The Academy was created as a way to settle labour disputes without having to create a union. The awards ceremony was not discussed at first, but as the disputes continued, it was created as a way to mend the film industry’s tarnished image. 

The first award ceremony took place in 1929, when the industry was going through a dramatic shift — the introduction of  films that used dialogue and sound. Although “talkies” were popular before the first award ceremony, they did not qualify for awards because it was seen as unfair to compare them to silent films. 

Although it started as a non-profit organization to pacify labour practices and rights, the academy would progress in later years to become more focused on the awards aspect and the film industry itself. 

Often times when thinking about the Academy, it turns into an overgeneralized group, that was,  until Stephen King tweeted  about how he doesn’t consider diversity when he is judging art after the list of nominations came out this year and there was backlash.  

 But who is a part of the Academy?  How do you join the Academy (is there a blood oath?) And obviously, what is the demographic make up of the Academy? 

The first thing to note is that no one is entirely sure who all of the members of the Academy are. It is a private list.  However, what we do know is that there are approximately 6000 people who are a part of the Academy currently. They are “film production professionals.” 

There are 17 branches of the Academy in total, made up of writers, producers, actors and directors, each with different requirements for getting in. Directors, for example, need to have a minimum of two directorial credits with at least one from the past 10 years and the films have to be “of the calibre which, in the opinion of the executive committee, reflect the high standards of the Academy.” 

Also, you can’t apply to be a member, but instead  have to be sponsored by a current member. Sponsors are warned that “sponsoring a candidate for membership in the Academy is a serious commitment,” and to “make sure you are confident that the candidate has ‘truly demonstrated exceptional achievement in the field…”  It turns out, once you are a member, you are a member for life. 

After data came out in 2012 that the Academy was made up of 94 per cent white people, 77 per cent of which were men, with a median age of 62 and less than 2 per cent making up people of colour when the hashtag OscarsSoWhite circulated Twitter, the Academy vowed they would do better. 

You can see how this might disproportionately affect people who are members of a minority group. I don’t need to tell you about the barriers people, who are not middle aged white men, face barriers on a day to day that could prevent them from having  two directorial debuts within the past ten years. A lack of diversity in the judging panel can mean that the panel does not want, or does not understand why films that are not of status quo, matter and deserve recognition. 

This year they invited 842 members, the largest invitation the Academy has ever seen, with new members from 59 countries. The Academy is now composed of 50 per cent women and 29 per cent being  people of colour. 

It’s hard to say how many people decided to join the Academy after being invited. Yet with the release of the nominations last week, it is apparent that those invitations were purely symbolic,  meant to better the image than really change anything. 

Both women and people of colour continue to be underrepresented in the nominations. 

The Best Director Category, first of all, was all male nominees, despite Greta Gerwig’s Little Women being nominated for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. In fact, since 1976, when the first woman was nominated, only six women have been nominated for Best Director. In 2009, 

Kathryn Bigelow, a white woman, became the first and only woman to win Best Director. Since 2009, the only other woman to be nominated for Best Director was Greta Gerwig (also a white woman) for Ladybird (a story about a white woman). It took 70 years for a black director to be nominated for Best Director and over the course of the  92 years in which the Oscars has run, not one has received an Oscar. There are  21 white men that have won multiple times.   

This year, the Best Actor category was composed of nominees who were, again,  all white men, despite Parasite, a Korean film with English subtitles that has been highly praised by critics making its debut. The Best Actress category was dominated by white women, except for Cynthia Eviro who was nominated for her part as a slave in Harriet . All the while, women of colour such as Jennifer Lopez and Cho Yeo- Jeong are sidelined despite their performances in Hustlers and Parasite.

In the history of the Academy awards, only one black woman has won an Oscar for Best Leading Role: Halle Berry for her performance in the 2002 film Monster’s Ball. In 1939, Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Gone with the Wind, but because of segregation laws at the time, she had to sit at a table at the back

So after all of these years and all of these statistics, we must ask ourselves, what can happen next? How can we go on from here? 

As consumers, we have the power to switch off the award shows that do not reflect our view. If the Oscars of 2020 do not mirror the values of 2020, we do not have to watch. Without our ratings, maybe the Academy will get the message, once again, and take further steps to ensure diversity in the voting. 

Until then, seek out diverse stories and storytellers, you’ll be amazed at what you might learn if you see something from a different perspective. 

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