How the Academy Plans to Fix Hollywood's Diversity Problem

The organization's president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, announced the launch of an initiative during a ceremony on Saturday.
Nov 16, 2015·
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Amid a growing call for Hollywood to address its glaring lack of diversity, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs on Saturday urged immediate and comprehensive action from the industry leaders most poised to create change.

"You understand that when it comes to fair and equal representation in our industry, words are not enough," Boone Isaacs told a crowd of actors, directors, and "movers and shakers," as she called them, during a Los Angeles ceremony on Saturday honoring the lifetime achievements of filmmaker Spike Lee and actors Debbie Reynolds and Gena Rowlands.

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"Interest in the motion picture arts and sciences has never been as strong as it is today," said Boone Isaacs, who is the first African American and the third woman to hold the chief leadership position in the Academy's 88-year history. "The world is watching to see how we respond to this critical issue," she said, announcing the creation of a five-year plan aimed at diversifying the Academy's leadership.

Nearly four years ago, the L.A. Times exposed the Academy's secretive membership as excruciatingly white and male. On Saturday, Boone asked for the cooperation of people "in positions of power to hire, mentor, encourage, and promote talent in all areas of our profession." Her stance represents a change of course since she defended the Academy in a January interview with Vulture, saying at the time that the organization had no problem recognizing diversity within its leadership. Her remarks followed a public outcry when the Academy failed to nominate any people of color in any of its acting categories, snubbing David Oyelowo for his critically praised performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma.

In 2012, the L.A Times obtained lists of the Academy's membership and determined that just 2 percent of its voters were black, less than 2 percent were Latino, and 23 percent were female—this despite that African Americans and Latinos account for 10 percent and 25 percent of all North American moviegoers, respectively, according to the Motion Picture Association of America's latest figures. Women comprise more than half of all theatrical audiences.

The box-office power of these groups will likely grow stronger as the nation's population becomes increasingly diverse, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections showing whites will no longer be a majority of the population by 2043. It's a statistic Lee said more studio executives would be wise to pay attention to, "because your workforce should reflect what this country looks like," the Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X filmmaker said while accepting an honorary Oscar—his first statuette, although he has been nominated two other times.

Like Boone Isaacs, Lee said that simply discussing issues of race and diversity was not enough to create change. He argued that the film industry, despite its reputation for being liberal, lags behind sports and even politics in racial diversity. "It's easier to be the president of the United States as a black person than be the head of a [film] studio," he said.

The 88th Academy Awards are slated for February, with Chris Rock set to host.