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Opinion The new diversity rules for the Oscars may create more problems than they solve

An Oscar statue is displayed at the 92nd Oscars Governors Ball press preview in Hollywood in January. (Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

It’ll be years before we see whether the new diversity requirements announced Tuesday by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences generate Best Picture nominees that are less pale and male than the honorees that have drawn criticism in years past. In the meantime, the new thicket of bureaucracy rolled out by the academy can’t do much to resolve some of Hollywood’s thorniest debates over representation — and it may well create new ones.

The approach the academy is taking is well-intentioned, using its highest honor as leverage to get Hollywood to make measurable changes in hiring. But the essence of diversity is in nuance as well as numbers.

The new rules are sort of like a prix fixe menu: Starting in 2024, movies that want to compete for Best Picture must prove that their makers aimed to be inclusive on a number of levels, but they can pick exactly how they want to establish their bona fides from a list of options provided by the academy. Producers can cast racially or ethnically diverse leads. Or they can assemble broadly diverse casts and tell stories “centered on an underrepresented group(s).” Or hire members of minority and underrepresented communities in key behind-the-scenes roles. Or provide internship and training opportunities on set.

New York Magazine’s Mark Harris and Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff have pointed out that it won’t be terribly difficult for lots of movies — particularly those made by large studios that already have large, diverse staffs and established internship programs — to qualify. Still, those efforts could have an impact. As Variety critic Clayton Davis put it in an op-ed, “The Academy isn’t telling Picasso what to put in his paintings. Still, if he wants to submit his artwork for an Oscar, he’s got to use more vibrant colors or invite a local young painter to watch his process.”

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Academics such as Martha Lauzen at San Diego State University and Stacy L. Smith of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism have long done studies documenting Hollywood’s homogeneity both on- and off-screen. By setting concrete targets for movies that hope to be Best Picture, the academy is providing a real incentive to improve those figures.

Still, numbers are just one way to talk about representation in Hollywood, and they can be a crude aspect of the conversation.

Consider this hypothetical: A biopic about a pathbreaking transgender woman is getting Oscar buzz, and while 30 percent of the ensemble cast is made up of LGBT people of color, the lead is played by a cisgender woman. The producers insist that casting an established star was crucial to getting the movie financed, even though the actress doesn’t share a gender identity with the character she’s playing. The movie more than meets the requirements for on-screen diversity to be eligible for Best Picture. But is the film an actual victory for diversity if it reaffirms a message that transgender actors aren’t bankable or interesting to mainstream audiences?

The rules also seem destined to stir debate over who is “underrepresented” — and maybe even over who is considered White. The academy lists Asian, Hispanic/Latinx, Black/African American, Indigenous/Native American/Alaska Native, Middle Eastern/North African and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander as communities it considers underrepresented on the big screen. But it also leaves an opening for “Other underrepresented race or ethnicity.”

The questions that invites are nearly endless. How should the academy consider a movie like “Parasite,” Bong Joon Ho’s South Korean class tragicomedy? That film was directed by and stars people who are underrepresented on American movie screens but who are members of the ethnic majority where the movie was shot. Will there be content qualifications, say, if a film stars a Middle Eastern actor but gives him or her a cliche role as a terrorist?

Are Jews White? If not, are we arguably overrepresented in movies and television — or should Hasidic and Orthodox Jews be considered underrepresented? In America, Irish and Italian immigrants and their descendants were once considered distinct from other White people, but became assimilated into a larger White identity over time. How will the Oscars consider movies about people who might be considered White in the United States, but whose ethnic identities take on a different valance in Europe, like Russians or Slavs?

All of this, and I haven’t even gotten started on what it means that the new academy rules don’t contemplate underrepresentation on the basis of class and religion.

In the best of all possible worlds, these changes to the Oscar rules will result not merely in a more diverse awards show, but in an entertainment industry that more meaningfully represents the world at large. That may be the ultimate measure of success for the academy. It’ll be the beginning of a much more frank and challenging conversation for the rest of us.

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