The Academy Awards are not simply about recognizing excellence in filmmaking.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences mission is to promote the idea that film has the power to “inspire imagination and connect the world through the medium of motion pictures.” Or to simply put it (and to be a bit cynical): movies aren’t just about making money; movies have the ability to change the world.
The purpose of the Academy Awards is to advance this idea by recognizing movies that are about historic and contemporary social justice and humanitarian issues.
That’s why every year the Oscar telecast pimps out clips from the same handful of movies: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Philadelphia, Schindler’s List, Gandhi, Glory, etc.
There’s even a “humanitarian” award for an “individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry.”
But here’s the problem: You cannot have an awards show where you pat yourself on the back for daring to make movies about slavery, genocide, oppression, discrimination, and so on, and then primarily nominate movies made by studios that have serious issues with race and gender in front of and behind the camera.
And this is why The Academy is so embroiled in this controversy about diversity. None of the other major film awards are that much better on the issue, but The Academy’s aggrandizing the social importance of Hollywood movies begs the question: What exactly is Hollywood and The Academy doing for anyone in the real world?
(Another problem is that movie studios first-and-foremost care about making money. Making the world a better place is pretty low on their list of priorities. And yet the Academy wants us to think that studio chiefs decided to green light The Green Mile, for example, because they thought it would strike a blow for racial equality rather than they just thought it would be profitable.)
The Academy’s recent movie to completely overhaul to voting membership really doesn’t solve anything. You’re just going to have a more diverse group of people voting on movies where the actors on screen are still mostly white men and white women under 30, and the crew and studio executives are mostly white men.
If the Academy really wants to be the agent for social change that it claims to be, then it needs to take on the studios directly. The easiest way to do that is to deem films produced or distributed by studios with a poor diversity track record ineligible for Oscars.
Now I’m sure some people are thinking that I’m calling for quotas in movies, but they’re missing the point. The Academy has boxed itself into this corner. It claims to be an activist organization helping to promote social justice through film — this is what activism looks like.
The Academy has a simple choice: STFU about how Hollywood is a white knight for social progress, or put its money where its mouth is and do not continue to reward movies that do not share its ideals.