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The Oscars have a diversity issue

Like many award shows, the Academy Awards, known as the Oscars, have become something of an institution within American culture. Because of this, many people feel comfortable in their understanding of how The Academy selects its films. What exactly goes on behind the scenes is not public knowledge, but in general, most Americans assume that the court of public opinion will win out and that their favorites will receive Oscars. After the Golden Globes controversy this year, however, as well as a general suspicion around their nominations,  many have begun to doubt the selection process. These doubts beg the question: How much is really understood about the Oscars themselves?

A good starting point might be The Academy themselves. Who is The Academy composed of? How are members decided? What makes their opinions any different? How are nominees chosen? How can something fall into one category but not another? Has the Oscars really changed since its conception even after its many controversies? It is all of these questions and more that have inspired the ambivalence which so many now feel for the Oscars.

What we call “The Academy” is more accurately named the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences. Founded in 1927, two years before they held the first Oscars ceremony, and composed mainly of industry insiders, The Academy was founded by the industry, for the industry, even from the beginning. They wrote books to better the general technical knowledge of industry professionals, and were founded to give awards based on the merit and cinematic achievement of modern films.

The Academy members are usually professionals in any of these 17 fields: Actors, Casting Directors, Cinematographers, Costume Directors, Directors, Documentary, Executives, Film Editors, Makeup Artists and Hairstylists, Marketing and Public Relations, Music, Producers, Production Design, Short Film, and Feature Animation, Sound, Visual Effects, Writers and for members that do not necessarily fit any one of those they are considered to be “Members-at-Large” or Associates. The process of gaining membership, however, is far more complicated than simply working in a filmmaking field. From category to category, requirements differ, and applicants must be sponsored by at least two current Academy members in their respective field. From this point, sponsored candidates are then reviewed by the Academy’s Board of Governors, who go on to decide exactly who gets an invitation to join. Of course, before even being considered for sponsorship, members must have an extensive resume. 

Nominations themselves are made by category — for example, Academy film editors alone decide who deserves best editing. The only category which sees universal voting from every field is that of Best Picture. From here, the votes are counted by an outside source, totally unaffiliated with The Academy proper, with winners being unknown, even to The Academy, until the ceremony itself. 

Though the system seems concrete on paper, there have been multiple controversies about the fairness of the aforementioned categories. For example, the 2019 Awards saw a Nigerian submission for the International Film category, Lionheart, disqualified for the film’s abundance of English dialogue, even though Nigeria’s official language is English, and has been ever since the British colonized it. This is especially absurd in light of the 2010 Best Picture nominee Inglourious Basterds, a film with only 30% English dialogue. This places undue prejudice on any countries which once faced colonization, and whose lingua francas are now English. 

But the controversies miring The Oscars do not end with language alone. 2016 saw the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite appear after two solid years of all acting nominations going to white actors. Last year saw a similar, sarcastic phrase, “Congratulations to those men”, cropping up when no women were nominated at all for the Best Director category. 2019 fared little better, with only a single actor of color being nominated, after several people of color nominees took home Oscars the year before.

With every year the Academy seems to be actively trying to get better in its gender parity and racial representation, but there is a lot of history to make up for. Only two female directors have ever won the Best Director Oscar (2009 and 2021), and considering the fact that the Academy has been around for a few years short of a century, this number is shockingly low. It may not help that, in general, the Academy is still overwhelmingly white and male.

For the Oscars, 2021 was notably a year of firsts. Chloe Zhao was the first and only women of color to win Best Director (and only the second woman to ever win an Oscar), while Mia Neal and Jamika Nealson became the first ever black women to win the Best Hair and Makeup. Meanwhile, Riz Ahmed and Steven Yeun were both nominated for Best Actor (though neither won), the first Muslim and East Asian American actors to ever attain the nomination. Yuh-Jung Youn won Best Supporting Actress for her role in Minari, the first ever Korean to win the nomination. While these wins are definite victories in regards to representation and diversity, it is shocking that it took nearly a century for them to occur. One can only hope these wins are indicative of something, a new trend, rather than simple anomalies. 

Written by Joanne Ibironke