I stepped over one of those lines recently, by saying something on Twitter that I mistakenly thought was noncontroversial: “I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.” The subject was the Academy Awards. I also said, in essence, that those judging creative excellence should be blind to questions of race, gender or sexual orientation.
I did not say that was the case today, because nothing could be further from the truth. Nor did I say that films, novels, plays and music focusing on diversity and/or inequality cannot be works of creative genius. They can be, and often are. Ava DuVernay’s 2019 Netflix miniseries, “When They See Us,” about the wrongful convictions of the Central Park Five, is a splendid case in point.
Has there been progress in the film community? Yes, some. I’m old enough to remember when there were only a handful of African American directors and about the only female director in Hollywood was Ida Lupino, who made hard-edged noir B pictures in the 1950s and later worked in television. Her directing work was never nominated for an Oscar or an Emmy.
For answers to why some talented artists are nominated and some — such as Greta Gerwig, who helmed the astoundingly good new version of “Little Women” — are not, you might need to look no further than the demographic makeup of those who vote for the Academy Awards. It’s better than it was, certainly. Only eight years ago, 94 percent of the 5,700 voters were white, according to the Los Angeles Times, 77 percent were male and 54 percent were more than 60 years old. This year, women make up 32 percent of voters (up only 1 percent from last year) and minority members equal 16 percent of the total.
Not good enough. Not even within shouting distance of good enough.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is trying — in a stumbling fashion far too slow for the Age of Apple and Facebook — to make changes. In the years before #OscarsSoWhite (2015), the academy added about 115 members per year, arguing that a smaller voting pool kept the professional caliber of the voters high. If that makes you mad, it should.
In 2019, the academy invited 842 new members, after inviting 928 the year before, which would bring the total to about 9,000. Give them credit for trying to catch up . . . but not too much credit. Of the nine films nominated for Best Picture this year, the majority — “The Irishman,” “Ford v Ferrari,” “1917,” “Joker” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” — are what my sons call “man-fiction.” There are fights, guns and many white faces.
Here’s another piece of the puzzle. Voters are supposed to look at all films in serious contention. This year, that would be about 60. There’s no way of checking how many voters actually do, because viewing is on the honor system. How many of the older, whiter contingent actually saw “Harriet,” about Harriet Tubman, or “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”? Just asking the question. If they did see all the films, were they moved by what they saw? Did they feel the catharsis that’s the basis of all that artists aspire to? Did they understand?
Where am I in this diversity discussion? Fair question. The answer is white, male, old and rich. (I didn’t grow up rich, and the memories of working for minimum wage linger, but I sure am now.) It would be absurd to dispute that and equally absurd to apologize for it. The first two traits are genetic, and the last two are the work of Time the Avenger.
Yet I’m proud to have written about strong female characters facing complex issues, in novels that have often been adapted for movies or television, with the characters brought powerfully to life by gifted actresses. The span runs from “Carrie,” a novel of female empowerment, more than 40 years ago, to “Lisey’s Story,” now in production as a limited series, about the power of sisterhood, a thing I learned about from my mother and her sisters, plus my wife’s mother and hers.
When people complained on social media a few years ago about Idris Elba being cast as Roland Deschain, the gunslinger at the center of the Dark Tower books, I replied that I didn’t care what the character’s skin color was, as long as he could draw fast and shoot straight.
The response reflects my overall attitude that, as with justice, judgments of creative excellence should be blind. But that would be the case in a perfect world, one where the game isn’t rigged in favor of the white folks. Creative excellence comes from every walk, color, creed, gender and sexual orientation, and it’s made richer and bolder and more exciting by diversity, but it’s defined by being excellent. Judging anyone’s work by any other standard is insulting and — worse — it undermines those hard-won moments when excellence from a diverse source is rewarded (against, it seems, all the odds) by leaving such recognition vulnerable to being dismissed as politically correct.
We don’t live in that perfect world, and this year’s less-than-diverse Academy Awards nominations once more prove it. Maybe someday we will. I can dream, can’t I? After all, I make stuff up for a living.