Resolved: Litmus tests are death to art.
Also resolved: In their nearly century-long existence, the Oscars have never been about art.
The news that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is instituting new “inclusion requirements” for any movie hoping to be nominated for best picture set off all the expected Klaxon horns along the cultural and political spectrums. It’s about time, say those rooting for diversity in front of and behind the camera. It’s a politically correct firing squad for free expression, say traditionalist watchdogs. You don’t have to know anything about the Oscars to have an opinion on this one. And, believe me, that knowledge, or lack thereof, will show. (Especially in online comments sections.)
The thing is that both sides have a point and both sides have it wrong. Installing a woke purity test for Oscar nominees does nothing — zilch, nada, bupkes — to affect the movies that get made or awarded. It mostly makes Academy members and the film companies in general feel better about themselves, which is what the Oscars have been about from Day 1. In the process, the new rules just may end up hurting those who need the most help — short-staffed independent filmmakers — and favoring the studio powers that be.
Which, honestly, is also what the Academy Awards have always been about.
Here are the specifics. To be eligible for a best picture nomination (the only category currently affected), a film will have to satisfy diversity requirements in two out of four categories. Loosely, those categories are: on the screen, behind the screen, in entry-level and training positions, and on the marketing and distribution teams.
For instance, to pass “Standard A: On-Screen Representation, Themes, and Narratives,” an eligible movie must meet one of the following criteria: At least one of the lead or major supporting actors has to be from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group; or 30 percent of all secondary and minor roles should be from at least two groups of four (women; racial or ethnic groups; LGBTQ+; people with cognitive or physical disabilities); or the main story line must be centered on an underrepresented group.
Sounds like Stalinist madness and a surefire path to neutered creativity, doesn’t it? Or maybe it’s the only way to ensure more stories get told, about more kinds of people, than Hollywood usually bankrolls and awards.
In fact, it’s neither. The rules are broad and vague enough to weasel just about any movie into the nominees’ circle. If your film’s hairstylist and costume designer are women — as is almost always the case — and one of them is of color and the hero of the movie has a gay friend, bingo, you’re good.
That’s the most cynical reading. The most generous would be that an insistence on 30 percent diversity in a cast ensemble or on a film crew; ongoing paid internships and apprenticeships for those groups often shut out of the industry boys’ club; and “multiple in-house senior executives” from underrepresented groups on the back-end teams — well, these are good things. Anyone who knows Hollywood knows the talent is there and knocking on a door that remains stubbornly closed.
And arguably that’s what the Academy has been trying to jump-start with its own membership diversity initiatives, more than doubling the number of women and underrepresented ethnic groups in the four years from 2016 to 2020. That, more than onscreen, is where the change needs to happen, and even more so in the executive suites where the kinds of stories that get greenlit and paid for still hang on the say-so of powerful white men. Nothing’s going to change until that changes, and you’re allowed to scoff at the new Oscar best picture eligibility rules as feel-good tokenism that studio sharks will delight in bending to awards-season ends. More than one observer has already noted that it will be far easier for the corporate studios to play the staffing game — and to game it — than an independent company strapped for finances and personnel. As always, the rules favor the big boys.
Fact: The Academy Awards were invented in the late 1920s as a way for the movie studios to put their best feet forward while busily trying to crush unions behind the scenes. The Oscars were the moguls’ way of patting themselves on the back and saying, “Look, we’re not so bad. We don’t just tell lurid stories of sin and sex, even though those are the movies you actually buy the tickets for. We make important work. We make art.”
It was, is, and always will be a public relations ploy, in other words, and it’s easy to read the new inclusion rules as more of the same, affecting only those movies that stand to be put forward as Hollywood’s “important work” but not the bulk of everyday releases. A new study from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative of 1,300 movies over 12 years found that women and underrepresented ethnicities still each make up only one-third of speaking roles, unchanged from 2007. Litmus tests won’t affect those; a broader range of people in the head office and the producers’ and directors’ chairs will. Forcing inclusivity rules for Oscar’s gold ring might well result in creative choices coming from people who traditionally don’t get a chance to make them. It could just as likely result in self-important social dramas that never draw a genuine breath.
In other words, the kind of movie that traditionally gets a best picture nomination. Sometimes it happens that Oscar winners are good movies — sometimes they’re even art — but that’s almost always secondary to the yearly feel-good glow before the return to making money. The truth is that the majority of best picture winners from recent years, including some of the most shameless, would pass the inclusion test without changing a thing. Doesn’t George VI’s stammer in “The King’s Speech” (2010) count as a disability? Aren’t all those dramas of biracial friendship a shoo-in, regardless of whether they’re really just about a white character’s moral growth? Any rule change that still lets “Green Book” (2018) win best picture probably hasn’t gone far enough. (Yes, I’m still fighting that one.) On the other hand, any awards contest that hands the big prize to a small but staggering film like “Moonlight” (2016) is already doing something right. If the new rules open the door to more films like that one, they’ll be worth it. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. The pieces of any movie can be predetermined but the magic of a great one remains a mystery beyond categorization.