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Academy President Promises Change in Response to #OscarsSoWhite

Director Spike Lee is boycotting the ceremony.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Davidlohr Bueso

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, released a brief statement yesterday addressing widespread criticism of the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nomination list.

“I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion,” wrote Isaacs, who is the first black person and third woman to serve as president of the Academy. “In the coming days and weeks we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond.”

The statement was released on the same day as director Spike Lee’s announcement of his boycott of the 88th Academy Awards. His announcement, which was symbolically published on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, echoes the scorn and frustration felt by those criticizing the Oscars for excluding people of color in its biggest categories. However, his statement looks beyond the Academy and recognizes the larger, systemic discrimination that occurs at the highest levels of the industry.

“As I See It, The Academy Awards Is Not Where The ‘Real’ Battle Is. It's In The Executive Office Of The Hollywood Studios And TV And Cable Networks. This Is Where The Gate Keepers Decide What Gets Made And What Gets Jettisoned To ‘Turnaround’ Or Scrap Heap. This Is What's Important,” he wrote on Facebook. He was joined by actress Jada Pinkett Smith in his boycott.

#OscarsSoWhite... Again.I Would Like To Thank President Cheryl Boone Isaacs And The Board Of Governors Of The Academy...

Posted by Spike Lee on Monday, January 18, 2016\n

Interestingly, it’s Lee, not Isaacs, who offers a concrete example of what the Academy can do to improve. He references the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires football teams to interview people of color for open coaching positions before making a hire. This has increased the number of black coaches in the NFL since its establishment in 2003.

What Isaacs’ statement does illustrate, though, is the tendency of large organizations (and corporations) to address systemic problems only retroactively, after controversy and negative publicity. Had the Academy understood its failure to represent diverse communities in its nominationswhich it should have, following last year’s similar criticismthey could have avoided a repeat of its mistakes. But that was going to be unlikely either way, considering how predominantly white, male, and old Academy voters are.

While it’s too late to amend the 2016 nominations, Isaacs’ statement at least provides some hope for the future of the awards ceremony. Hollywood and the film industry as a whole will be much more difficult to change, but there is potential for a trickle-down effect: Once the Academy starts to recognize more films reflecting diverse communities and experiences, more of such films will be green-lit and produced. Let’s hope that the Academy delivers on its effort to become more inclusive.

Read Isaacs’ full statement below or on Twitter:

I’d like to acknowledge the wonderful work of this year’s nominees. While we celebrate their extraordinary achievements, I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes. The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership. In the coming days and weeks we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond.

As many of you know, we have implemented changes to diversify our membership in the last four years. But the change is not coming as fast as we would like. We need to do more, and better and more quickly.

This isn’t unprecedented for the Academy. In the ’60s and ’70s it was about recruiting younger members to stay vital and relevant. In 2016, the mandate is inclusion in all of its facets: gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. We recognize the very real concerns of our community, and I so appreciate all of you who have reached out to me in our effort to move forward together.

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