Oscars 2016: Will the Academy rule changes work?

Following the second year in a row in which all the Oscar acting nominees have been white, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced alterations to the membership. Will this bring about change? 

Andrew Cooper/The Weinstein Company/AP
Samuel L. Jackson in 'The Hateful Eight'

Following the second year in a row in which all the Oscar acting nominees have been white, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is making changes. Actors such as Idris Elba of “Beasts of No Nation,” Will Smith of “Concussion,” and Samuel L. Jackson of “The Hateful Eight” were thought to be contenders this year but did not make the cut.

Changes to the academy membership have been announced. The biggest change is the ability of academy members to vote on who receives an Oscar. According to the new rules, only members who have remained active in the movie industry for decades, or have been nominated for or won an Oscar will be able to vote. (A Los Angeles Times 2012 study found that of those who vote, the median age was 62, almost 94 percent were Caucasian, and 77 percent were male.)

The academy says it is continuing to make efforts to recruit members who represent greater diversity. But the cry for broader racial representation is reaching into all areas of entertainment even as the “Black Lives Matter” movement is stoking national discussions on race relations. 

Although ethnic minorities make up nearly 40 percent of the US population, only 17 percent of the lead roles in theatrical films are nonwhite, according to the “2015 Hollywood Diversity Report,” produced by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

That divide points to a “serious problem in the industry,” says Thomas Schatz, media professor at The University of Texas at Austin. “[The academy is] a white boys’ club. There are moments like this when you’re reminded of it.”

Professor Schatz says the recent popularity of “Furious 7,” one of the highest-grossing movies in 2015 that also happened to have a racially diverse cast, shows that not all box-office hits need to have predominantly white actors. As for the academy’s recent changes, Schatz says, “It seems to be window dressing to me.”

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