Home News The Oscars Now Have D.E.I. Rules, but Some Say It’s Just a Performance

The Oscars Now Have D.E.I. Rules, but Some Say It’s Just a Performance

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The Oscars Now Have D.E.I. Rules, but Some Say It’s Just a Performance

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The national reckoning over racial justice after the killing of George Floyd spurred many of the country’s most distinguished institutions into action, few more so than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

After years of criticism for overlooking female directors and actors of color, the academy announced a torrent of diversity-oriented changes. One high-profile move involved the academy’s most coveted trophy: To qualify for the best picture Oscar, films had to fulfill a new set of diversity and inclusion standards.

This new rule, enforced for the first time for this Sunday’s ceremony, is complicated and expansive.

A checklist of four categories and nine subcategories cover almost every aspect of the filmmaking pipeline. Diversity in hiring — actors, directors, makeup artists, publicists, interns — is considered. So is the movie’s plot. To qualify, films must show that they meet two of the four main categories of representation: onscreen (actors, plot), offscreen leadership (set designers, makeup artists), training programs and marketing.

Academy leaders light up like theater marquees when talking about the standards, calling them a success and pointing to a 2023 survey of members in which 85 percent of respondents said it was “important” for the organization to lead on representation, inclusion and equity.

But critics from an array of perspectives in the film industry have described the standards as the equivalent of tinsel — flimsy and showy — doing more to gild Hollywood’s image than to help people the movie business has long overlooked.

Executives at some of the major film companies, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to appear anti-inclusion, said that the diversity mandates have changed little about how they make movies, largely because the standards are so easily met.

The director Spike Lee, whose films often explore the country’s tortured history with racism, has said that while he thinks the academy’s “heart is in the right place,” the standards contain “a lot of loopholes.” Mr. Lee, who declined to comment further, has also said that nothing will change unless the studio gatekeepers who greenlight films come from more diverse backgrounds.

On the more conservative side of Hollywood — or what can seem conservative in such a deep blue enclave — the actor Richard Dreyfuss, who often jabs at his more liberal peers, has called the best picture rules “thoughtless,” “patronizing” and an impingement to artistic freedom. “They make me vomit,” he fumed.

By several measures, diversification has improved, and the Oscars this year look much more like America in 2024. Seven of the 20 acting nominees are from historically underrepresented groups. Lily Gladstone is the first Native American nominee for best actress for her role in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Colman Domingo was nominated for best actor for his role playing the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin.

And the best picture category includes films with diverse casts, like “Barbie” and “American Fiction,” and stories, like “Past Lives,” about a fateful reunion between a Korean American woman and her childhood friend.

Then there is “Oppenheimer,” which received 13 nominations, and is widely seen by awards handicappers as the front-runner for the top Oscar. The film has profound themes and euphoric reviews — exactly the kind of work the academy often honors.

But because of its historical context, the cast is nearly all white. The biographical film, directed by Christopher Nolan, is set largely during World War II, when the military and most of American society was still segregated. Its plot — about the classified program to develop the atomic bomb — is centered on powerful and privileged men who work at the nation’s most elite academic institutions.

“Oppenheimer” still easily met the diversity requirements for Best Picture.

It cleared one standard for offscreen hiring because nearly a dozen women held senior positions on the crew, including costume designer, set designer, editor and head hairstylist. At least one senior role was filled by someone from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group: the head of makeup, Luisa Abel, who is Hispanic.

Even without those hiring decisions, “Oppenheimer” would have qualified. That is because its studio, Universal, has created in-house programs, in-career training and audience development that help satisfy the rules for almost every picture it makes.

Since 2021, Universal has operated an extensive crew training program for underrepresented individuals. The majority of Universal movies participate, and “Oppenheimer” was no exception.

Universal, more so than some other studios, also has a diverse marketing and distribution team, including Dwight Cane, the studio’s president of marketing, who is Black. (All of his counterparts at other major studios are white.)

Proponents of the standards said they were never meant to be a panacea for Hollywood’s representation problems but a way to start a larger conversation about diversity.

“The standards are not difficult to meet; I will be the first person to say that,” said Jeanell English, who worked at the academy on its impact and inclusion efforts until last summer. “But what they are doing is starting critical conversations in this community about representation.”

Had they been too strict, Ms. English added, “You would have lost a lot of support and momentum.”

The academy has been under criticism for years, especially after the “Oscars So White” movement in 2015 and 2016, when voters put forward all-white acting nominees.

There was improvement afterward as the academy undertook a major expansion of its membership. But some critics charge that change has not come fast enough. A new study on the gender, race and ethnicity of directors by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative dismissed pledges to diversify as “performative acts by the entertainment industry and not real steps toward fostering change.”

And some worry that the standards can blinker artistic vision and don’t want the academy meddling in creative decisions.

“Yes, indeed, there should be diversification,” said F. Murray Abraham, a best actor winner. “But I hope our search for it will expand rather than inhibit our creative instincts.”

As loose as the new rules appear to be, there are still issues of exclusion. More than 250 Hollywood insiders signed an open letter in January imploring the academy to revise its standards to include Jews.

“While we applaud the academy’s efforts to increase diverse and authentic storytelling, an inclusion effort that excludes Jews is both steeped in and misunderstands antisemitism,” said the letter, whose signatories included Mayim Bialik, Tiffany Haddish and Amy Schumer.

As Universal found, the academy’s requirements raised another issue: the possibility of lawsuits. Studios have broad First Amendment protections in making casting decisions as a matter of artistic freedom. But the studios, not the academy, would be on the hook for any liability if a white male successfully sued for, say, having been denied a crew job because of the standards.

Universal’s lawyers also cautioned that asking certain questions of employees — detailed ones necessary to complete the academy’s forms — was illegal. (“Are you gay?” “Do you have a mental impairment?”) To get around that hurdle, the studio decided to approach 20 senior marketing executives with a question: This is the diversity information the academy wants — would you feel comfortable voluntarily sharing it? About half responded yes.

Meredith Shea, the academy’s chief membership, impact and industry officer, said the inclusion standards were always intended to be more of a prod, less of an edict.

“The goal is not to exclude,” Ms. Shea said. “It’s not to tell people what stories to tell, how to tell them, who to hire or how to cast. We just want everyone to have the widest lens possible throughout the filmmaking process. Are you at least having discussions about bringing people in who have been historically shut out?”

Marc Tracy contributed reporting.

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