Editorial: Discussing Oscar Voter Demographics, Diversity, and More
by Ben Pearson
February 21, 2012
When The King's Speech won Best Picture over The Social Network at last year's Academy Awards, it confirmed something I had suspected for a long time: my personal views on most films do not align with those who cast votes for the Oscars. Over the past year, The Los Angeles Times did some digging and recently published an investigative report uncovering many of the identities of Oscar voters, and the results are staggeringly one-sided: of the 5,765 voting members, 94% are white, 77% are male, 2% are black, and less than 2% are Latino. Just below we can take a look at what those numbers actually mean. Keep reading!
Looking at statistics like that, it's easy to instinctively jump to cries of racism and picketing. But the LA Times interviewed many Academy members, and their testimonies are pretty revealing. Denzel Washington, who won Best Actor for his performance in 2001's Training Day, thinks the Academy's ranks should better represent the demographics of the entire country. Washington says:
"If the country is 12% black, make the academy 12% black. If the nation is 15% Hispanic, make the academy 15% Hispanic. Why not?"
But Frank Pierson, who won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay with Dog Day Afternoon and serves on the board of governors, thinks the standards should be a bit higher than diversity for the sake of diversity. He comments:
"I don't see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That's what the People's Choice Awards are for. We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn't reflect the general population, so be it."
He's got a point. I don't think the percentage of minorities in the United States should have anything to do with the membership of the Academy. That would be like saying, "Because the nation is 15% Hispanic, now the membership of collegiate athletes [or pick another competitive organization and insert them here] has to be exactly 15% Hispanic." (I know this is getting dangerously close to Affirmative Action territory, but stay with me here.) Phil Alden Robinson, another Academy governor, had this to say about the criticism:
"We absolutely recognize that we need to do a better job. [However] we start off with one hand tied behind our back. If the industry as a whole is not doing a great job in opening up its ranks, it's very hard for us to diversify our membership."
I never thought I'd find myself defending the Academy, but I think Robinson touches on a larger issue that we should really be concerned with. The fault shouldn't fall squarely on the Academy for the entire industry's lack of diversity. Yes, as an institution that is supposed to represent the best of the best, they should absolutely be a beacon and set a good example in their practices. But the true burden is on the casting directors, the guilds, the real working class of the entertainment industry - the people who are out there making movies every day - to open their doors to everyone talented enough to make it, regardless of gender or skin color. Without that step, the metaphorical snake will continue to eat its own tail and nothing will ever progress.
Look, I'm not fully supporting the Academy here. Not by a long shot. In the past 83 years, less than 4% of acting awards have been bestowed on African Americans, and Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman who has ever won the Oscar for Best Director. Any organization with that kind of track record is, as they say, doing it wrong. But what's the point of having a "best of the best" if you let everybody in? It's the same mentality as giving every kid a trophy in little league baseball, even if their team lost every game for the entire season. Hard work and excellence should be rewarded, not just participation.
I'm guessing most of The King's Speech victory last year can be attributed to a different set of numbers altogether: Oscar voters have a median age of 62, and people younger than 50 constitute a tiny portion of the voting membership, a shockingly low 14%. In the battle for votes between a film about British royalty and a sleek Shakespearean tech drama, the numbers speak for themselves. But because most of the time you need years of experience in your field to be considered for membership in the Academy, it's not surprising that movies skewing toward an older audience will find favor among the voters.
Academy President Tom Sherak says he wants to diversify the organization, but it's a slow process because they've limited membership growth over the past ten years. Now I'll throw it to you, andopen this up for discussion. What do you think is the best way to diversify the Academy? Do you think it should better reflect the general population? Sound off below!