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May I have the (pushed) envelope, please? My response to the Academy’s new change for future contenders

“Well, I could be wrong, but I believe diversity is an old, old wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era.”

– Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell)

This Anchorman quote would be followed by Ron’s boss Ed (the late great Fred Willard) making sure Ron knew what the word actually meant, that times are changing. This indeed was the message sent to the world by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

After the response of the #oscarssowhite, it was indeed clear that the Academy needed to start making changes. This included added more diversity to it’s voting body of now over 8,000 voting members, both gender wise and race wise (historically, most of the members have always been white men, and they still do make up the majority of the voting body).

This past week, the Academy announced rules for the eligibility of the biggest award given every year, Best Picture. It is the only award that all members vote on (Composers would not be voting for actors, actors would not vote for Cinematographers, etc). As long as the film was long enough, it could be considered (as well as, you know, being good). 

Now, the Academy has made new standards that will be used starting in 2024 (given that other movies are already in development and could not be changed in time). There are four standards (each with their own guidelines) given, and a film has to meet two of those four. 

A: On-Screen Representation, Themes and Narratives

B: Creative Leadership and Project Team

C: Industry Access and Opportunities

D: Audience Development

(Click here for the complete set of rules)

I do, of course, believe that diversity should exist in the work place, which is what many of these standards are trying to exemplify. However, the real issue for me is that is starting to look as though artists are being told what to do with their gifts. A screenwriter has to write this way, a director shows a scene this way, and so on. Whether or not you agree with an artist (of any kind) does not mean you should take away their originality. 

There is also the issue of talent. Obviously, the movie making field (as well as other fields) is full of highly talented individuals of ever race, religion, and gender. However, as we all (hopefully) learned in childhood, there is almost always going to be someone better than you in something. What worries me is that we will have more instances in which we get Oscar “snubs” because the Academy wanted to be more politically correct. 

I see this as a case in the category of Best Director. While the last three directors to win were from other countries, nearly all the directors nominated in the past have been white men. Only five women (all white) have been nominated for the award, with the one winner being Kathryn Bigelow for 2009’s The Hurt Locker (which also won Best Picture).  Despite six nominees in the past, we have yet to see a black filmmaker win the award. I truly wish to see the day when another non-white male director wins Best Director, but only if it is truly deserved (it should be noted that there are far more male directors than female). I would hate to see it done so the Academy can say “Look at the progress we are making!”. 

It reminds me of a quote from Remember the Titans, when Football Coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) is explaining his coaching plan in very simple terms:

“The best player will play. Color won’t matter.”

Even those who don’t follow the Oscars know that the Academy has a history of naming the wrong film Best Picture (looking at you, The English Patient). As someone who has seen every Best Picture winner (which I take a pride in, since it is no easy feat), I know this is all the more true. That makes the times when they get it right to be even more of an event.

When Parasite won the award this past February (one of the few positive things to happen to our culture in 2020 so far), I was in a room with friends sharing an historic moment. It was not just because it was the first foreign language film to win the big award, but because it was generally agreed upon (for the most part) to be the year’s actual best film (I had it as the year’s runner up). 

It is too early to determine if this change will be for the better or not, but it does give me some worry. Here is hoping the Academy remembers that, while diversity is indeed essential, it should not mean that, when it comes to the arts, we always put political correctness over quality.

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