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Film academy appoints three diverse new governors, others to leadership positions

Moving to address its lack of diversity, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences named three new governors Tuesday: African American director Reginald Hudlin, Latino writer Gregory Nava and Asian American animator Jennifer Yuh Nelson.

The appointments follow through on a promise academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs made to broaden the leadership of the industry group in January, after all 20 acting nominees were white for the second year in a row. Until Tuesday, Boone Isaacs and cinematography branch governor Daryn Okada were the only two board members of color.

OSCARS 2016: #OscarsSoWhite controversy

The board also appointed additional academy members to various committees, adding Latin American actor Gael García Bernal to the awards and events committee, cinematographer Amy Vincent to the preservation and history committee and African American producer Effie Brown to the museum committee.

Also named to leadership positions were Asian American executive Marcus Hu and African American animator Floyd Norman, to the education and outreach committee; African American executive Vanessa Morrison, to the finance committee; and African American producer Stephanie Allain, to the membership and administration committee.

“I’m proud of the steps we have taken to increase diversity,” Boone Isaacs said in a statement. “However, we know there is more to do as we move forward to make this a more inclusive organization.”

Indeed, on the same day it announced new leaders, the academy found itself forced to apologize for jokes mocking Asians during its Feb. 28 Oscars telecast, promising to be “more culturally sensitive” in the future.

The apology came in response to a letter sent by 25 academy members of Asian descent, including director Ang Lee, actors George Takei and Sandra Oh and former academy governors Don Hall, Freida Lee Mock and Arthur Dong.

The ABC-TV telecast, which was packed with racially charged material related to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, included one bit by host Chris Rock in which Asian American children played accountants, and a derogatory joke about Asians by presenter Sacha Baron Cohen.

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“If you watched the Oscars, the word 'diversity' seemed to mean black and white. That was it,” said Takei, reached by phone Tuesday morning. “We were absolutely aghast to see they compounded that by having a joke about Asian American children. How insensitive and how ignorant.”

The “Star Trek” actor, who was held with his family in an internment camp during World War II, said he and other Asian academy members began emailing each other about lodging a protest the night of the show.

“I grew up in prisons behind barbed-wire fences largely because of those stereotypes,” Takei said. “Asians were depicted as merciless villains to be laughed at. Now the stereotype is we're silent number counters or depicting child labor.”

Documentary filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña said she and other Asian academy members were surprised to see the jokes in a year when inclusion has been a defining issue for the academy, with the group taking dramatic action to diversify its membership.

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“Everybody was excited because we knew that the academy was responding to #OscarsSoWhite,” Tajima-Peña said. “We were excited to see the telecast to see what was gonna happen. It kind of blindsided us. It was such a contrast to the language of moving forward, recognizing that this culture is multi-racial, multi-ethnic. It wasn’t even funny. It’s just dredging up really idiotic stereotypes.”

In the letter, the academy members asked the board to respond to their criticism.

“We'd like to know how such tasteless and offensive skits could have happened and what process you have in place to preclude such unconscious or outright bias and racism toward any group in future Oscars telecasts,” the letter reads.

On Tuesday afternoon, the academy addressed the letter in a statement issued by a spokeswoman.

“The academy appreciates the concerns stated, and regrets that any aspect of the Oscar telecast was offensive,” the statement read. “We are committed to doing our best to ensure that material in future shows be more culturally sensitive.” Academy Chief Executive Dawn Hudson also sent a note expressing that sentiment to the 25 academy members who wrote the letter.

The closed-door meeting Tuesday was the first for the academy’s 51-member board of governors since the Oscars telecast.

Going forward, the now-54-member board must figure out how to implement A2020, the plan Boone Isaacs announced in January aimed at doubling the number of women and people of color among the academy’s 6,261 voting members.

Asians currently account for just over 2% of the academy's membership, according to a 2016 Times analysis.

Typically in the spring, each of the 17 academy branches begins considering new members, with the board approving and inviting them in June. But this year is apt to be different from any before it: As The Times reported last month, following through on A2020 would require inviting classes of at least 375 women and more than 130 people of color each year. That would suggest a dramatic shift in admissions policies given that the academy's latest class — touted as the largest and most diverse in its history — was only 322 people, most of them white men.

With women and minorities under-represented in many key Hollywood jobs, including among the executive positions that greenlight films, some branches will have their work cut out for them in reaching the board’s goals.

In a February interview, Boone Isaacs told The Times that the academy was nevertheless committed to attaining those targets.

“There are enough qualified people,” Boone Isaacs said, adding that academy leaders would “do everything in our power to meet our goals because we know that this is the right thing to do. We’re going to make it happen.”

The board also clarified a new policy that has been a source of considerable anxiety and anger among current academy members, affirming its Jan. 21 resolution to make sure academy voters are active in the film industry and rescinding voting rights for those who have not worked in it for 10 years.

In the meeting, the governors decided that each branch executive committee would determine specific criteria for active voters based on the guidelines established in January. Members who have been nominated for an Oscar will retain lifetime voting rights, as will those who have worked during three 10-year periods.

The branch executive committees will meet every two years — starting this spring — to review their members and determine any potential reclassifications. The committees also will adopt an appeals process for members who may lose their voting privileges.

Some academy members say the policy is ageist, while others maintain it will have the unintended consequence of pushing out more women and minorities, who have a harder time getting steady work in Hollywood.

The new rules arrived in the midst of one of the most contentious awards seasons in the academy’s history, with Governors Award winner Spike Lee staying home from the show and activists holding real-life and online protests.

The academy has been grappling with how to diversify its ranks for years, and change has been slow: According to a Times study published in February, Oscars voters are now 91% white and 76% male, down from 94% white and 77% male in 2012.

The diversity issue is but one item the academy faces as it looks ahead — halting falling ratings for the Oscars telecast, completing the Academy Museum in time for its scheduled 2017 opening and electing new board officers over the summer are also on the horizon.

For more academy news, follow me on Twitter: @thatrebecca.


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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


9:07 p.m.: This post has been updated throughout.