Next week, the 2016 Academy Award nominations will be announced and, as is our annual tradition, almost immediately scrutinized by everyone on the Internet. And if the recent criticism of The Hollywood Reporter's extremely white pre-awards roundtable coverage is any indication, diversity among the nominees -- or, more likely, the lack thereof -- will be an incredibly hot button issue just as it was in 2015.
Unless Hollywood finally begins to actually do something about it, of course.
Last year, activist and writer April Reign created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag on Twitter to express her disapproval with the 2015 Oscar nominations, and it quickly took off, becoming so popular that host Neil Patrick Harris even opened his monologue that year with a joke about the whiteness of that night's event. According to recent coverage by the The LA Times, it appears that members of the Motion Picture Academy are actively worried the #OscarsSoWhite campaign will reappear once again to paint the organization in a negative light -- as out of touch at best and out-and-out racist as worst.
It does seem like the organization has spent this year trying to combat this fear. President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a black woman herself, was re-elected again this summer; the annual pool of new members was increased to include more women and people of color; and Chris Rock, who's certainly not afraid to take the Oscars to task for discrimination, will be hosting the event. But if it's still not enough, what else can the Academy -- and the industry at large -- do to make their commitment to diversity clear?
Nomination voting closes this Friday, January 8, so there's still a little bit of time for academy member to consider their choices for this year's nominees. But as Reign told MTV News over the phone, the lack of diversity can't be solved as simply as deciding to nominate more people of color at the last minute; it's a much deeper, pervasive problem within the industry at large, and it needs to be treated as such. Here's what she suggests:
Academy members need to watch more movies, especially ones that portray experiences beyond their own.
It's not enough just to make sure you put Idris Elba's name on your ballot for his performance in "Beast Of No Nation" and call it a day -- especially if you haven't had the change to really compare Elba's performance to those of his peers and competitors. Currently, however, it's not a guarantee that everyone who votes has seen every film (just ask one of THR's anonymous voters from last year, who hadn't seen most of the nominations for Best Animated Feature but still voted, and who unrepetently admitted that they'd mostly be voting for their friends). So obviously, watching more films is an excellent place for Academy members to start -- and one that could actually conceivably be done within the next few days.
“That's what affirmative action is really supposed to be about, if you want to use that term," Reign said. "It’s not to make sure a black nominee or a person of color is in each category, it’s to make sure that the playing field is level and then let the chips fall where they may. After watching 20 films, if you decide Ryan Coogler is the best director for the movie 'Creed,' then nominate him. If you’ve decided it’s not him, then that’s fine, but make sure you watch movies that are representative of America and the world and not just those stars who look like you or movies that make you feel comfortable."
But Hollywood studios need to do a better job campaigning with the movies they do have.
Despite being considered the frontrunner for Oscar buzz, the civil rights biopic "Selma" only received nominations for three categories: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Song. After the nominations were announced, many critics cited the lack of "Selma" recognition on its late release date (January 9, just a week before the voting deadline) and incredibly poor marketing strategy.
"It was a fantastic film with critical acclaim, but the screeners themselves were not being sent out to Academy members," Reign said. "We need to see the studios supporting the films from beginning to end. It’s one thing to say, ‘Yes, we made a quote unquote black film, but if you drop it after that and no one sees it, then really, what good has been done? You spend all the money to make the film so you can say that you made it, but you’re not supporting the film afterwards... In the same way [studios] put full page ads in Variety highlighting the actors and actresses that are part of their company, that should be happening for films of color and for artists of color."
The Academy needs to consider making changes to how they invite new members -- and to how they manage their older ones.
In the summer of 2015, the Academy added more than twice the amount of new members as usual -- a record-breaking 322, compared to their regular 100 to 200 -- and did so with deliberate intent to include more women, people of color, and people from foreign countries. While that's incredibly encouraging, it's still a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the Academy's more than 6,000 members, which in a 2014 survey was found to be 93% white, 76% male, and 63-years old on average.
To combat this, Reign believes that the Academy needs to take a serious look at their existing pool of members. "Because if we’re talking about old white males, and that’s who the majority of the academy is, they don’t necessary have any impetus to change. How do we get fresh blood in there?"
"Once you’re in, you’re in for life, but if that means you’ve retired and you’re not really doing anything, as opposed to those people who are still seriously in the industry and actively making films, maybe there should be some sort of provisional status if you can’t show that you’re still actively involved, and it’s more of a title," she suggested. "It’s the difference between an alumnus of a university versus an actual student of the university. An alumnus still has ties and paid their dues and should be recognized, but maybe they don’t get the same type of vote as the student who’s still right there in the middle of the process."
Movie producers also need to be willing to cast people of color in more and better roles.
As Reign points out, many of the winning performances by white actors have little to do with the race of the characters they play, but actors of color don't alway have that same luxury. In particular, a sizable majority of the black women who've won Oscars for acting -- which is only seven women in 87 years, remember -- did so for roles that made them subservient to white characters. "And yet, the experience of black women and women of color is so much more than that," Reign noted.
Her solution? Open up more casting calls to include people of color, and create roles for them that aren't focused on their race. "It’s a huge thing that ‘Star Wars’ is breaking all of the records right now, and one of the leads is a woman and the other is a black man," she said. "It says that even though there was a lot of backlash before the movie came out about having a black stormtrooper, we see that people will go see movies with a strong female heroine who is a badass, and a black man who is vulnerable and yet strong."
"People will go see those movies, and I think that’s the takeaway. If 'Star Wars' can earn a gazillion dollars, then why not have more leads from traditionally underrepresented segments of society?"
People in and outside of the industry need to keep having this conversation.
This year, the biggest conversation about Hollywood mostly revolved around the pervasiveness of sexism in the industry. This past summer, ACLU called Hollywood's treatment of female employees a civil rights violation , and in the fall the EEOC even began to conduct interviews with female film professionals as part of an investigation into the claim. Wage inequality was also a heated point of conversation, and many actresses -- most notably Jennifer Lawrence -- spoke out against the status quo by describing their own experiences in the industry.
When asked whether an investigation into the lack of diversity in Hollywood would do any good, Reign was cautiously optimistic. "Any time we have the opportunity to think deeply about these issues, it’s helpful... [but] It’s one thing to highlight the problem, it’s another thing to ensure that change will be made once the problem is pinpointed."
"There’s a distinction between the Academy, which can only do so much, and the Hollywood structure," she clarified. "#OscarsSoWhite was about the actual nominations, and the nominees, but was also a bigger critique on what movies were even available to be nominated, and that comes from the big Hollywood studios."
Finally, the Academy should be upfront about their own involvement in the process.
"They should be transparent about the changes that they expect to make, because otherwise it’s going to continue year after year," Reign said. "What changes have you made between January of 2015 and January of 2016, so that we can see the difference? Because it’s not as if there aren’t quality films by people of color and otherwise out there. So what changes have you made to ensure those movies are being supported and that the Academy members will be able to see all of then? What changes have you made to how people become members?"
If they don't, it's likely that the efforts they do attempt to make will go unnoticed -- or worse, that no one feel any motivation to change much of anything due to the lack of transparency. But until then, they certainly shouldn't expect hashtag campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite to let up; even if Reign herself isn't on the front lines this year, rest assured that other activists who share her beliefs and passion will be there to take up the cause instead.
So, sorry, anonymous Academy members, there's probably nothing much you can do this point to avoid another round of backlash. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, if it means we're continuing to examine and challenge institutional inequality when we see it.
But you should probably vote for Ryan Coogler anyway. I mean, come on. Did you see "Creed?"