July 23, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Cautious optimism that Oscars’ new inclusion rules will work

When Radha Blank, writer-director and star of “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” arrived in Hollywood to work in the writers room of “The Get Down,” a friend advised: Don’t take off your head scarf.

“I understood what he meant,” she says. “It wasn’t likely I’d come home [to New York] with a blond weave and contacts, but the money is so damn good out there, you think, ‘Well, if at some point I have to remove my septum ring and take off my scarf, maybe I’ll do that.’ It’s a big deal for an artist like myself to remain myself.”

Awards season hopeful films this year are, in many ways, full of artists being themselves: There’s a solid selection of diverse, complex stories like Blank’s in such films as “Da 5 Bloods,” “One Night in Miami,” “Sound of Metal” and “Minari”: Nearly all of those films listed are directed by people of color, feature casts or protagonists of color, with significant members of the crew also being people of color.

That’s the world the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is hoping to propagate with new rules unveiled in September. Though they won’t go fully into effect until 2024, the academy’s new representation and inclusion standards are — as they indicated at the time of release — meant to “encourage equitable representation on and off screen.”

Based on the British Film Institute’s diversity standards, which have been in place since 2014, they boil down to requiring a film to meet two of four standards regarding diversity in categories covering on-camera talent, below-the-line artisans, interns/apprentices and even studio executives. Films that don’t meet those criteria won’t be considered for the best picture Oscar.

This year’s crop of films doesn’t have to worry about meeting any particular standards. But four months after the initial announcement, are directors already starting to shift to make changes?

Well, that depends on the filmmaker being asked. Mostly, it seems to be generating more questions.

“It is helpful to have more voices on the set that will help guide the process,” says writer-director Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”). “When the effects are implemented, it can be quite positive. But the controversy lies in how you reach those effects.”

At the heart of the standards is the expectation that filmmakers and studios put a lot of weight on winning a best picture Oscar. If a film seems unlikely to be a contender in that category, the new rules may not provoke significant change. But prestige pictures are likely to be a different story. For them, says UCLA Dean of Social Sciences Darnell Hunt, “It could change the way business is done, so you’re not recycling the same old people who tend not to be diverse.”

Nearly every director spoken to for this piece walked a fine diplomatic line, keeping comments focused on staffing and crew — and not the top-line talent. Some included themselves as part of the diversity factor. “I never pay attention to that, because one, I’m female,” says Julie Taymor (“The Glorias”), who points to her tradition of diversity, starting with the Broadway staging of “The Lion King.” “I need to have the best people, so we look for the most diverse people we can have — but if they’re not there, how do they get there? You have to push to get them in the system.”

Still, the BFI rules on which the new academy standards are built (and which also require films to check off diverse criteria in front of and behind the camera to receive funding) have exhibited mixed results six years in. Clive Nwonka, a fellow in film studies at the London School of Economics, released the report “Race and Ethnicity in the U.K. Film Industry” in 2020 and noted on Twitter in July that the diversity standards have “not yet responded to the challenge of racial inequality in the [British] film industry.”

Director Remi Weekes (“His House”), who is British, seems to agree. “I wouldn’t be able to say that behind the camera in the UK has changed that much. Optimistically, it’s moving in the right direction, but change requires a lot of work and sacrifice. It’s the beginning — but the beginning of hard work.”

Nor are standards expected to reshape how, and who, the industry hires single-handedly. Notes Hunt, they have to go hand in hand with other practices, such as apprenticeships and mentoring.

“It would be naive to say we’ll get to the point of not needing initiatives,” he says. “It’s an ongoing struggle. But we can do a hell of a lot better in 2025 than we did in 1950, if you’re pursuing the right interventions. The people calling the shots have limited experiences, which lead them to making the same decisions over and over. We get out of those problems once we diversify the people making those decisions. The question is: Are we moving in the right direction?”