The Oscars Tried to Diversify. Somehow Diversity Didn’t Follow.

oscar diversity tries

In leaving out several prominent and viable contenders, the Academy fell back on its historic biases.

— Kyle Buchanan, New York Times culture reporter and awards season columnist

On Monday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the list of Oscar nominees and, unsurprisingly, it was overwhelmingly white and male.

A grand total of zero women were nominated in the best director category, leaving off several critically acclaimed names who had created major box office hits, such as Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”), Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”) and Lorene Scafaria (“Hustlers”). Most of the best picture front-runners featured an all-male cast, with women playing ornamental roles on the fringes.

Racial diversity didn’t fare much better: All but one (Cynthia Erivo in “Harriet”) of the best actor and actress nominees were white. Jennifer Lopez, who was widely expected to secure a best supporting actress nomination for playing the savvy, complex character of Ramona in “Hustlers,” was snubbed.

Though the academy has tried to diversify, white and male voters still make up the majority of its 9,000-member voting pool, which recommends the final list of nominees and therefore determines which parts of American culture deserve to be canonized. And, for the most part, stories about women still don’t seem to make the cut. In fact, the audience at early screenings of “Little Women,” as Vanity Fair reported, “was overwhelmingly comprised of women” — men weren’t even watching the film.

“The homogeneous group of gatekeepers that came before us still affects so much of what we consider worthy of canonization,” writes Kyle Buchanan, a New York Times culture reporter and awards season columnist. “Changing those entrenched attitudes will require not just diverse membership rolls, but a willingness to investigate who and what we deem important.”

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I caught up with Buchanan to discuss why the Oscars lineup is still so white and male.

You mention in one of your articles that “Hustlers” couldn’t pull off an awards-season rebrand. Walk us through what you mean by that and what Oscars campaigning typically looks like.

There are two ways of going about it. There are certain movies that just immediately announce themselves as being very Oscar-worthy — your Martin Scorsese films, your Quentin Tarantino films.

And then you have films that are big hits and so successful that people start to think, “Well, shouldn’t this be nominated for an Oscar?”

The thing that happens at that point is that [the movie’s team needs] to say, “We’re more than just a mainstream success. We have something to say. We’re important. We have some sort of cultural weight,” which to my mind, “Hustlers” had. It’s a really savvy, smart movie about class, gender, our current economic and social state and similarly I thought there was a lot more going on beneath the surface in Jennifer Lopez’s performance.

But I don’t know that they ever quite convinced awards voters that it was more than just some hit movie.

So Oscar voters are not looking just at box office statistics. What, then, are they looking for exactly?

Well, that’s the million-dollar question. And I think that’s especially relevant when it comes to movies about women and by women because those films can be about the exact same things that movies about men are and they still have a harder time cracking the Oscar conversation.

Last year, we saw another female-dominated crime film, “Widows,” directed by Steve McQueen, who had won the best picture Oscar for “12 Years a Slave.” It was his follow-up movie, and it didn’t get nominated for anything. Crime dramas are no stranger to Oscars, but crime dramas that star women where they’re unapologetic, not always likable and in charge of their own situation, have a harder time getting Oscar attention.

You also mention in your article that Jennifer Lopez’s ambition might have dented her chances. Why?

One of the tricky things about the Oscars is that there is a weird kind of target you have to hit where they know you want it, but not too much.

Leonardo DiCaprio was extremely reluctant to do any campaigning for “Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood” this year. In fact, he did more campaigning for other people’s movies. If you asked him to sit for major media profiles, as Jennifer Lopez did, he turned them all down. But when Mo’Nique won the best supporting actress trophy for “Precious,” she famously was not campaigning and it became the thing that everybody talked about.

We all know that when it comes to female ambition, that is so much more heavily policed than it is for men.

After #OscarsSoWhite, the academy made it a point to diversify its voting body. What happened with that?

The academy is becoming more diverse. It is taking great pains to admit a lot more women and people of color.

But at the same time, the tricky thing is that generations before us have canonized certain types of stories, and they are almost always male-led and almost always have to do with extremely weighty matters, like murder or violence, often against women, or war. “1917,” for example, is nominated and there’s only one role for a woman in it, and one scene.

Do you think that the problem with the Oscars is maybe further back in the pipeline? That few women make movies therefore few women are nominated?

Everybody who is part of this process will throw up their hands and say, “It’s not my fault that these nominees are not diverse. It’s the fault of the people who make the movie.”

That’s true to some extent, but the thing is, even though the Oscars don’t make the movies, they affect what movies get made. And I think that’s really crucial. If a movie is in the pipeline that resembles something like “The Irishman,” it is going to get closer to a green light than a movie like “Hustlers” or “The Farewell,” which had to fight to be made and which were famously turned down by almost every studio.

Yes, the Oscars can only choose from the movies that are in front of them, but there is often a bounty of diverse stories in front of them and they don’t always choose them. And then that has a sort of pernicious ripple effect that affects the next crop of movies.

Last question — which of the best picture nominees is your favorite?

I do love that “Parasite” is in the conversation.

Readers: Which films do you think deserved an Oscar nod? Which actors, directors and others do you feel were overlooked? Tell us here.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has mounted an effort to double female and minority membership, in large part by inviting in more film professionals from overseas.

But even after four years of the initiative, the organization remains quite homogeneous. Here’s a breakdown:

  • 9,537: Total number of Oscars voters, as of December 2019.

  • 68: The percentage of Oscars voters who are male.

  • 84: The percentage of Oscars voters who are white.

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