Progress Without Profit: I’d like to criticize the Academy
If you sit through the much-too-long Academy Awards, you are guaranteed to hear beautiful stars flash smiles and give rushed speeches that include the phrase: “I’d like to thank the Academy.” An ubiquitous Hollywood presence and Oscars buzzword, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences determines which movies deserve recognition and whom audiences should praise. Although it hosts the biggest event in Los Angeles, the Academy’s nonprofit status often flies under the radar, with people possessing a vague understanding of its purpose and structure.
Formally known as the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the Academy is a wealthy nonprofit with assets approaching $1 billion. Although widely recognized for hosting the Oscars, the Academy provides grants and holds other events and projects throughout the year. For example, with a $482 million price tag, the Academy recently opened the much-delayed Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
The nonprofit operates under the mission “to recognize and uphold excellence in the motion picture arts and sciences, inspire imagination, and connect the world through the medium of motion pictures.” Despite this worthy cause, the Academy faces a similar problem as many other nonprofits — a lack of diversity. The Academy Awards showcases predominately white actors, directors and creatives while talented people of color fall by the wayside.
Personally, I don’t see the need for the Academy Awards. My opinion aside, however, I understand why people working in the industry desire recognition. In any case, I don’t see the Oscars completely disappearing anytime soon. Therefore, if the Academy Awards is here to stay, it must at least face its racist history and undergo major change.
For its 93 year existence, the Academy Awards has perpetuated racism. In 1940, Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Gone with The Wind,” a film which romanticized the Antebellum South and glossed over the horrors of slavery. Although McDaniel was the first Black person to win an Oscar, her victory did not represent a moment of racial equality. The Academy gave McDaniel the award at a segregated hotel and made her sit at a separate table from the rest of the all-white cast.
The Academy fails to recognize talent of color, which is unsurprising when considering the nonprofit’s demographics. While the Academy does not publicly disclose its members, a 2013 survey by the Los Angeles Times revealed that 93% of members were white, 76% were men and 63 was the average age for voters.
To become an Academy member, a person must either receive an Oscar nomination or get sponsored by two existing members. If members are mainly white, this process only exacerbates the problem of mostly white nominations. In other words, the nomination process for membership in the Academy creates a problematic cycle.
After the Academy nominated all white people for the 20 acting categories in 2015, April Reign created #OscarsSoWhite to call for more diversity at the Oscars. Following #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy attempted to diversify its membership. In 2019, 32% of members were women and 16% of members were people of color as compared to 24% and 7%, respectively, back in 2013. Despite these slight improvements, these numbers are nowhere near acceptable levels. Unfortunately, nominations from before and after #OscarsSoWhite are still white and lack diversity.
In 2012, Octavia Spencer won the Oscar for Supporting Actress for her role of Minny Jackson in “The Help.” In 2019, after #OscarsSoWhite, “Green Book” won the Oscar for Best Picture. Movies such as “The Help” and “Green Book” follow a white savior narrative and applaud a white main character for the low bar of not being racist.
White men directed both “The Help” and “Green Book.” These movies centered around racism are made by white people, for white people and ultimately judged by white people. The Academy Awards celebrates offensive racial tropes that attempt to check a diversity box and not make white audiences uncomfortable.
This past week, long-reigning CEO of the Academy Dawn Hudson announced she would leave her position in 2023. A leadership change presents the perfect opportunity to catalyze substantial changes within the Academy. Until the nonprofit fully confronts its past and diversifies its membership, it will fall short of a better future.
Although by no means a complete solution, the recent opening of Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is one of the first steps in the right direction — the museum directly mentions issues such as #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo. While the Academy Museum mentions past racism, it focuses primarily on a positive message of diversity.
It is important to highlight the work of artists not previously celebrated by the Academy; however, the Academy cannot feign diversity from conception — it must address the flaws of its history rather than ignore them. In the end, the Museum’s messages of diversity fall flat if future actions do not reflect the Museum’s displayed values. Actions speak louder than words. Instead of hiding promises of diversity behind a $25 entrance fee, the Academy must take action so I can watch diverse winners on my television screen thank the Academy and actually mean it.
Sophie Roppe is a senior writing about nonprofit organizations and social justice. Her column, “Progress Without Profit,” usually runs every other Monday.