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Oscars Announce New Diversity & Inclusion Standards For Best Picture, But Is The Bar Set Too Low?

Posted: September 10, 2020

The Oscars have announced a new set of representation and inclusion criteria that aim to revolutionise diversity at all levels, but will these bring in any real change?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, has announced a set of representation and inclusion standards that films nominated for the Best Picture category must meet. While some are celebrating it as a move in the right direction, and others are against it for being “political correctness,” the real problem may be that it is such a low bar that it won’t bring in actual change.

In 2015, April Reign started the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite after the Oscars announced a set of 20 all-white acting nominees – not surprisingly, because the Academy membership at the time was was 92% white and 75% male.

In the years since, Hollywood has been criticized for not being more inclusive of minorities. It is perhaps in cognizance of its own role in promoting diversity and inclusion in Hollywood, that The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, made a historic announcement on the 8th of September 2020, that from 2024 onwards, movies that are nominated for Best Picture, must meet two out of four new representation and inclusion standards.

So, what are these new standards?

Of these, Standard A is meant to encourage diversity on screen (by casting actors or centering stories around people from underrepresented groups — women, LGBTQIA+ people, a racial or ethnic group or the disabled.)

Standard A has received the greatest attention and has been discussed the most online, because this is expected to change the ‘face’ of cinema. It will directly affect who and what viewers will see on screen.

Standard B, focuses on encouraging a more diverse behind the scenes crew, whereas Standards C and D, are geared towards inclusion in the companies involved in the distribution and marketing of the movies, and encouraging a more diverse viewership.

Speaking about the new criteria, Academy President David Rubin and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson, said “The aperture must widen to reflect our diverse global population in both the creation of motion pictures and in the audiences who connect with them. The Academy is committed to playing a vital role in helping make this a reality.”

“We believe these inclusion standards will be a catalyst for long-lasting, essential change in our industry,” they added.

The move is being hailed by many as a step in the right direction.

Is ‘political correctness’ really ruining movies?

Whenever diversity and inclusion has been spoken about as an essential part of movie making, there have been complaints that a focus on the ‘identity’ of the people involved and not on their talent or ability, will ‘ruin’ movies.

The response has been similar here. There is a lot of outrage online, with people suggesting that this will bring down the quality of movies. Others are pointing out that some past winners may not even be selected for Best Picture under these criteria. Yet others are outraged that this impinges on the freedom of movie makers, by telling them who to hire and what movies to make.

However, all these objections are based on an incomplete and incorrect understanding of the standards.

Firstly, to suggest that people from underrepresented backgrounds are less talented, and that having them as part of the cast and crew will somehow lead to worse movies is just offensive. People from marginalized backgrounds just do not get the same kind of opportunities and advantages that are available to those more privileged. This makes it more likely for their work to be ignored.

Secondly, the Academy itself is currently composed of 84% white and 68% male members; and most likely their internalized biases in favour of their in-groups, do affect the nominees chosen, no matter how much they may claim to be unbiased. These, more than a lack of talent, are the real reason why films starring or about underrepresented people, are not selected for the Oscars.

The argument that past winners may not be selected under the new guidelines, or that it curtails the freedom of those working in the movies does not fly either.

As Kyle Buchanan points out in his exhaustive review of the standards, and in his insightful tweet thread, films like The Irishman, Marriage Story, The Tree of Life, Joker, La La Land, etc would still make the cut, for example, because some jobs already skew heavily female.

Ultimately, to quote him, “Since only two of the four standards must be met for a film to qualify for the Oscars top prize, and Standards C and D are so easy for most studios to satisfy, best-picture contenders could remain fairly homogeneous both behind and in front of the camera. In other words, if a filmmaker still wants to make a war movie about white men like ‘1917’ or ‘American Sniper’, that’s permitted by the new Oscars guidelines as long as the studio distributing it has done the bare minimum when hiring interns and marketing executives.”

So will there be real change?

A closer look at the criteria then, reveal that the real problem is not that they are too restrictive, but that they actually are just the bare minimum. These are things that should have been happening any way.

There have been concerns that this will lead to more tokenism, and performative ‘inclusivity’ just so that these basic guidelines will be met, without driving any real change.

The one good thing that can immediately be acknowledged is, as Kyle Buchanan writes, that, “this is a tacit admission that the Academy is not a passive participant when it comes to diversity in Hollywood, merely beholden to films made outside the organization’s purview…If these new guidelines say anything loud and clear, it’s that a lack of diversity isn’t just the Oscars’ problem. It’s everybody’s.”

For any real change to come, it requires film makers to be true to the spirit of the guidelines, than to the letter. One can only hope, that they will aim for real inclusion, and that ignored talent will now finally come to the fore.

Image source: still from the film The Shape of Water, and analogicus on pixabay

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