Last year, there were some rumblings that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was mulling over the prospect of altering their Best Picture process. As it stands now, a preferential ballot is sent out to voters, after which anywhere between 5 and 10 nominees can arise. Last year, word surfaced that the Academy was considering expanding the category to a solid 10 nominees, but they ultimately decided to keep things as is. That is, until this year’s batch of nominees turned out to be entirely devoid of diversity.
With folks like Spike Lee, Will Smith, and Mark Ruffalo considering boycotting this year’s ceremony due to a lack of diversity, the Academy is now taking major steps to ensure that this kind of “whiteout” doesn’t happen again. Per the New York Times, they are expected to announce next week that they will be returning to a hard 10 nominees for Best Picture, which was the case in 2010 and 2011. Additionally, a “less likely” alteration could come in the form of expanding the acting categories to a larger group of nominees, which could go as high as 10. There’s also the possibility that the Academy instills a requirement that members either cast a ballot regularly or temporarily lose their voting privileges.
None of these changes are guaranteed, and a decision won’t be made until the Academy’s board of governors meets next Tuesday, but given the outcry over this year’s somewhat embarrassing lack of POC nominees, something is expected to change.
There’s no denying the fact that the lack of diverse nominees this year was a problem. And it’s not like there wasn’t a solid crop of non-white actors and filmmakers to choose from—Creed, Tangerine, Beasts of No Nation and Straight Outta Compton were regulars on the awards circuit over the past few months. But I’m not sure that any of these “solutions” the Academy is considering are the answer.
Expanding the categories feels like the Academy has to “handicap” the Oscars in order to include non-white films, performers, and filmmakers. When there were 10 Best Picture nominees, the category itself was somewhat watered-down with mediocre pics like The Blind Side and Extremely Loud and Incredible Close. If this year’s field had been 10 nominees instead of 8, sure Straight Outta Compton or Creed might have gotten in, but if the expanded field were a result of the Academy’s aim to diversify nominees, it would look like the Oscars have to make it easier to get a nomination in order to include people of color. That’s, uh, not a great message to send.
The failure of something like Creed to score major nominations was less a problem of the Academy and more an issue with MGM and Warner Bros., which neglected to foresee the awards potential and didn’t send out For Your Consideration screeners for the movie. Therefore, the actors and directors voting in these categories—who are mostly very busy people—didn’t have easy access to the movie. And when prognosticators fail to advocate for a tiny-budget film like Tangerine, it’s easy for the movie to get lost in the shuffle.
In the end, this lack of diversity at the Oscars is a reflection of the industry itself. Past Oscar nominees and winners like Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer had to move to television because meaty roles for people of color—not to mention women over 40—are few and far between in Hollywood. The issue can’t be fixed by expanding nomination fields—there needs to be a significant dynamic shift in the industry as a whole. Until that happens, we’re putting just a band aid on a massive head wound.