It’s the time of year when the zeitgeist inevitably turns to the Oscars, a notoriously white award show that consistently overlooks the accomplishments of women and people of color, both in front of and behind the camera. Although some think that Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite could be the first foreign-language film to take home the award for Best Picture, there was a stunning lack of diversity amongst this year’s acting nominees; British actress Cynthia Erivo was the only nonwhite actor nominated for a performance. For almost a century, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science has maintained a death grip on its status as the gatekeeper to Hollywood acclaim.
The Academy was created because one incredibly rich studio executive decided he needed a mansion right on the beach in Santa Monica. Louis B. Mayer, West Coast chief at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was born into 19th century Russia into poverty and became one of the highest-paid men in the United States by his early forties. Film critic David Thomson writes in Vanity Fair that the only issue with constructing Mayer’s beachside chateau was that the studio laborers were in the midst of unionization, and that meant construction would be expensive. To get around that, he hired just a few skilled people from the studio, and outsourced the rest of the work for cheap.
But the ordeal made Mayer worry that the actors he employed would get the union spirit in their heads and cut into his profits. He figured it would be in his business’ best interest if there were an organization that could work out labor disputes in the studio’s favor. So he got a few of his like-minded industry friends together, and they created the Academy.
“I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them. If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created,” he later said, according to Scott Eyman in Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer.
The newly established Academy held its first awards ceremony in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Blossom Room. A New York Times retrospective published in 1945 recalls that the Academy said they were holding the awards because they “felt there was not enough concern for movies as an art rather than a business.” One of the most popular films of the moment was The Jazz Singer, a story about a man who dresses up in blackface and performs in a minstrel show. The Academy decided it wasn’t fair to let “talkies” compete with silent films, so the first Best Picture award went to the World War I epic Wings instead.
In the ensuing 90 years, the makeup of the Academy has remained largely male and largely white, and that’s been reflected in its nominees and honorees. Hattie McDaniel was the first Black person nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Mammy, a slave to protagonist Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. She took home the award for Best Supporting Actress in 1940, but it would take 60 years before another Black woman won the award. In the Oscars’ long history, only eight films directed by Black people have been nominated for Best Picture; as of 2019, a total of 11 Black producers had ever been nominated for Best Picture. Last year, Spike Lee was only the sixth Black director ever nominated; he didn’t win, but did take home a statuette for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Still, the Academy’s ability to have its awards be the industry’s seal of quality has thoroughly taken root.
UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report 2020 Film is available now! It features race & gender stats for actors, writers, & directors, box office figures, int’l market distribution, & audience demos for top 200 films, ranked by global box office, in 2018 & 2019. https://t.co/YJ9Y9EatgX
— LA Social Science (@lasocialscience) February 6, 2020
“Most studios want to be associated with prestige projects. Everyone wants to tout Oscar nominations,” says Darnell Hunt, UCLA dean and professor who authors the university’s annual Hollywood Diversity Report (the 2020 report was released on Thursday). “And if you’re starting out with an Academy that’s overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly over 60, then there are certain types of projects that they’re going to recognize as quality. Projects that feature people of color, I mean save maybe a slave story or two that they’re familiar with, they’re not going to see that as Oscar worthy.”
That sentiment is something that the organization itself recognizes. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs said in a 2016 statement that she was “both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion,” and introduced a plan to increase membership for women and people of color.
Hunt’s 2020 report says that films featuring diverse casts were the top performers at the global box office since it was created in 2014. “There certainly is no reluctance to making more money on the back of diversity,” he says. “What we’re not seeing the same degree is diversity behind the camera. Behind the camera white men are still firmly in control and that’s significant because they’re the ones who are making green-lighting decisions about what gets made, what the budget’s going to be, how it can be marketed, and who’s going to direct it.”
This year’s report found again that writers, directors, and executives are still over 80 percent white and male. Without more diversity in these positions, the films that are made and celebrated will only fulfill certain narratives. Hunt says to start to fix the problem, there needs to be a large shift in who is in the executive suites, and a continued push for diversity among the Academy’s ranks.
“It’s not like there’s a silver bullet,” he says.
But as the razzle-dazzle of the star-studded award show continues to suck the air out of the room every February, it’s hard to guess when that will happen.