Now That Oscars is So Diverse, This is Africa’s Time

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By Vanessa Obioha

It was in January 2016 that the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences announced that it was going to make radical changes to its voting requirements, recruiting process and governing structure, with an aim toward increasing the diversity of its membership. The decision came after a large outcry over the body’s 2015 and 2016 Awards nominations being so white and male dominated. 2016 saw the Academy snubbing films like Straight Outta Compton, a black American movie about the evolution of Hip-hop group N.W. A, as well as actor Will Smith (Concussion) whose wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith was among those who campaigned to boycott the ceremony for having an all white nominees in its individual acting categories. The group had 75 percent of its membership male and 92 percent white at the time.  Only 25 percent of its members were female and eight percent people of colour in 2015. By 2016, that figure increased slightly: 27 percent female and 11 percent people of colour.

 Few days after the uproar, the Academy’s 51-member governing board held a special meeting where the changes were approved. The board shifted its goal to doubling the number of female and minority members by 2020. At the time, the Academy had 6,436 active members out of which only 6,124 were eligible to vote for the Oscars, which means that the diversity pledge required them to add about 1,609 female members and 515 non-white members.

“The academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” the academy’s former president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, said in a statement, referring to the diversity issues that have confronted the body for long. 

As part of the changes, the Academy also said it would replace the traditional process of inviting members based on their achievement to that of an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity.

That year, the Academy added 683 members and in 2017, 774 members. 

But the biggest record set by the Academy was this year’s invitation which was sent to 928 new members from 59 countries including Nigeria, India, South Korea and Algeria. The members cut across different sectors in the film industry; from documentary to TV and music.

The change reflects the determination of the Academy’s first CEO,  Dawn Hudson, who pledged last year to increase the female and people of colour membership by 1,500 and 535 respectively by 2020. That figure is gradually coming close if all the invites are accepted. The Academy will now have 9,226 members, out of which only 8,176 members will be eligible to vote. The body which started as an exclusive L.A. area group will automatically have presence in 71 countries, earning an international status.

However, there are critics who argue that the Oscars through its diversity campaign is losing focus. The Hollywood Reporter in an opinion piece stated that there are downsides to trying to propel demographic change in the industry by making changes at the Academy as opposed to studios, agencies and other gatekeepers who are actually in a position to give people the opportunity to demonstrate the excellence that the Academy seeks to recognize in its membership and with its awards. 

“In order to meet its diversity goals, the Academy — and, in particular, its largest division, the actors branch — is increasingly inviting people to become members who are tremendously talented, but whose talents have primarily manifested themselves in other media. The Academy was created to celebrate the arts and sciences of motion pictures, meaning films, not TV, theater or stand-up comedy. If the Academy no longer feels that should be the case, then it should publicly state it,” the medium opined.

Notwithstanding, the Academy was lauded by many who felt it is finally moving in the right direction. Some of the invitees include Blair Underwood, Blake Lively, Daniel Kaluuya, Tiffany Hadish, among others. 

In Nigeria, prominent filmmaker, Femi Odugbemi (documentary), actress Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde (actor), movie producers Ngozi (feature) and Simon Onwurah (producer) were invited to join the Academy. 

For Odugbemi, the invitation is  “certainly delightful news for Africa to have a number of our creatives recognised to vote at the Oscars. It’s the world’s most prestigious film forum. Our contributions to world cinema is important. Diversity in the academy of motion pictures will lead to more opportunities for African cinema to be better appreciated for excellence. Moreso, African stories as showcased by our films will reinvent what is known around the world about the African experience. It represents bigger opportunities for all of us as filmmakers and storytellers.”

He however hopes that the creative industry will be inspired to focus more on telling our stories in a way that a global audience can appreciate.

“We need to aim for deeper stories that connect emotionally. All audiences, regardless of their background connect to our common humanity and the challenges that connect us all. We need stories of inspiration told with technical excellence and virtuosity. We need storytellers with ambition to reach a global audience whilst showcasing the wealth of our unique cultural realities. The world is watching and waiting for us. Our time is now!”