Diversity matters: changes must be made to the Academy Awards if they are to maintain their relevance

The 2020 Oscar nominations were released this January, and they’re pretty much exactly what everyone has come to expect. To nobody’s surprise, films like Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” both received Best Picture nominations, and, perhaps a little more surprisingly, Todd Phillips’ “Joker” was nominated for a total of 11 Academy Awards.

Unfortunately, fantastic films like “Midsommar,” “Hustlers” and “Uncut Gems,” films chocked full of talent, have been pushed to the wayside in favor of safer, tried-and-true choices like the movies mentioned above. Most surprisingly of all, the Best Director category saw no female nominees this year, effectively snubbing dozens of talented women, including Greta Gerwig, who received effusive praise for her most recent film “Little Women.” If the academy has any desire to stay relevant, the Oscars must make every effort to not only diversify the kinds of films that get nominated every year but also the voters who choose said films. 

Before offering a scathing critique of the institution, it is important to acknowledge that to many film-buffs, the Oscars are an exciting celebration of their favorite films. The flashy award show is something to look forward to every year. It would be wrong to begrudge people that joy. And then, of course, it is also important to note that the prestige that comes with winning an Oscar, or even receiving the nomination, is often enough to jumpstart the careers of unrecognized artists who had gone underappreciated up until that point. 

The Oscars present a valuable way of getting one’s foot through the door. Those looking for proof can look to actresses like Alicia Vikander, who received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2016 for her role in “The Danish Girl” and went on to star in films like 2018’s “Tomb Raider.” The Academy Awards are a chance to make a splash in the film world, which in turn allows women and people of color, groups that regularly go unappreciated, their chance in the spotlight.  

That being said, one shouldn’t give the Academy Awards too much credit. There are a number of reasons why women and people of color rarely receive the attention they deserve. The people who vote on the Oscars tend to be of one particular demographic. That is to say, they tend to be older, white men. Recent demographic numbers state that, as of 2018 women make up 31% of the voting population, and people of color make up a dismal 16% as of 2018

This monolithic voter base explains why the nominations feel all too similar each year. There seems to be a sort of formula directors can follow if they’re especially eager to get their film nominated, giving rise to terms like “Oscar-bait.” Period dramas laced with tragedy and trauma are the usual suspects, and the film’s chances are skyrocketed if it features previous award winners. 

The worst part of it all is that adherence to this vague structure often results in the work of people of color being brushed to the side. When films heavily featuring minority groups do receive attention, the films usually conform to the aforementioned structure: they’re period dramas laced with tragedy and trauma. Cynthia Erivo is the only black acting nominee this year, and her nomination is for her role in “Harriet,” a piece that depicts the harshness of slave life during the antebellum period.  

There’s little that can be done to change the demographics as of right now. Viewers don’t have the luxury of choosing who receives voting rights. Academy members are typically industry professionals who have achieved distinction during their careers in film. Oscar winners and nominees are automatically considered for membership. Due to the nature of this process, the people at home have no choice but to wait for older voters to be phased out. 

If it isn’t possible to simply wash out the old academy voters and instate new ones, the only other recourse is to focus on improving the awards themselves. The first step would be to advocate for the implementation of new categories. The award show is constantly evolving. Adding new categories like Best First Film, Best Voice Work or Best Original Soundtrack might breathe new life into the award show and give fresh talent a chance to bask in the spotlight. Event coordinators could even go so far as to increase the number of nominees per category, further increasing the chance for new representation. 

These critiques are not meant to be a series of potshots at the Academy Awards, but instead they’re meant to sustain and update an award show so many people value. It’s a secret to no one that Oscar TV viewership is steadily decreasing, with 2018 seeing the lowest ratings in four decades at around 26.5 million viewers. When faced with statistics like these, one has no choice but to question whether or not the Oscars will continue to carry prestige they’ve enjoyed thus far. 

Of course, nobody wants to see the Oscars lose their appeal. As mentioned earlier, many small-names in the industry benefit from the highly publicized nature of the event. The most reasonable course of action is to advocate for more inclusivity in the award show. One can take heart with the knowledge that event coordinators are aware of the issue. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted to double counts for female and nonwhite members back in 2016, but such change is happening too slowly. Viewers must hold the organizers feet to the fire to ensure that these efforts continue. 

Whether one likes it or not, the Oscars have dictated how cinema evolves for decades now. That may not always be the case. Those who wish to enjoy the Academy Awards for years to come must continue to advocate for further diversity. In the future, one can only hope to see more films that break away from the “safe” Oscar-bait formula spoonfed to viewers over the years. Only then will the Oscars be an award show worthy of its prestige again. 

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