After an Oscar season in which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got strafed for nominating only white actors and actresses for the second consecutive year, the Academy took a big step last week to try to become something other than #SoWhite, inviting 683 people, many of them women or non-white, to join the organization’s branches. Making the Academy more diverse doesn’t guarantee that the winners of future Oscars will be: These new members of the Academy can nominate great work by people of color and women only if people of color and women get to make and star in movies. But it does give the invitees, some of whom seem long-overdue for membership, a valuable stamp of approval and the power to vote on the winners.
And an increase in racial diversity and in the representation of women isn’t the only thing that’s exciting about the list of 683 people who have been invited to join the Academy — or the only thing about the invitations that might change who the Academy recognizes. The list includes nods for artists who are known primarily for genre films, and for romances, as well as for parodies and activist documentaries.
At first glance, it might seem like broadening the genre of movie that can earn an artist recognition from the Academy matters less than making sure everyone has a fair shot at membership or an Oscar statuette no matter their race or gender. But part of the Academy’s diversity problem stems from its fidelity to a narrow range of categories of movies it deems worthy, among them staid biopics and tales of physical arduousness, both of which often end up focusing on white men.
One way to improve diversity in Oscar nominations is to bring the histories of people other than white men to the screen, or to tell tales of derring-do and perseverance that let people who are not Leonardo DiCaprio survive bear attacks, or who are not Matt Damon launch daring escapes from Mars. But the other way to do it is to get the Academy to acknowledge that not all valuable work in the movies has to have the same character beats or social messages, and to recognize the great performances and great direction that are happening outside the movies that have the highest, most predictable gloss of importance.
In the acting branch, it’s a delight to see John Boyega on the invitation list, not merely because he’s a wildly charismatic young black actor, but because he’s most famous for genre films, most significantly the indie science fiction movie “Attack the Block” and “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.” I know Rose Byrne does more serious fare, too, but her invitation to the Academy comes as she has emerged as a sly comedic talent, mashing up stiff traditional femininity with a foul mouth and hilarious physical comedy in movies like “Bridesmaids” and “Spy.” And maybe Gabrielle Union, who does everything from romantic comedy to action movies with style and who has been perpetually underrated throughout her career, will finally get the measure of the recognition she deserves thanks to this invitation.
The invitations to cinematographers are a valuable reminder that real work and craft go into all sorts of movies, from the blunt Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour” to the delightfully weird genre mash-up “Kung Fu Hustle.”
And in the directing branch, Ryan Coogler’s invitation feels appropriate not merely because he’s African American and has directed two nearly flawless movies, but because his most recent movie, “Creed,” proved that even a remake of an aging franchise can sparkle with attention, care and a sensitive script. Anne Fletcher and Sanaa Hamri have persisted in making romantic comedies even at a moment when the genre sometimes feels as though it’s in a bit of a death spiral, and now, both women have earned Academy membership. And though he may be a white guy, I cheered to see Adam McKay’s invitations from both the writers’ and directors’ wings of the Academy for all the work he has done to keep savage social satire alive in mainstream comedy.
None of this is to say that we should give up on the prospect of handsome period pieces about women and people of color (as well as LGBT people and people with disabilities) or on dramas about societal progress — two genres that claim their share of Academy Award nominations and wins.
But simply fitting members of marginalized communities into preexisting kinds of stories is a limited victory. It still means that the movies the entertainment industry takes most seriously are about public lives, rather than private ones, and about suffering rather than about joy. The Academy Awards will be both more diverse and more interesting when anyone, and any story, can truly compete for the top prizes.