Perspective: The film academy’s diversity push means neglected films have their shot at the canon

Adepero Oduye stars as aíAlikeaì in Focus Features release, movie PARIAH, directed by Dee Rees. Phot
Adepero Oduye in “Pariah,” directed by Dee Rees.
(Focus Features)

The first time I saw myself — black, queer and fabulous — fully reflected on the big screen was in 2008 with the release of Patrik-Ian Polk’s “Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom.” I was 16 years old.

In the 10 years since, I’ve discovered Polk’s “Punks” and “The Skinny,” Dee Rees’ “Pariah,” Tina Mabry’s “Mississippi Damned,” Cheryl Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman” and documentaries like Jennie Livingston’s “Paris Is Burning” and Marlon Riggs’ “Tongues Untied” and “Black Is ... Black Ain’t.”

I’ve often wondered why these pictures weren’t on the tongues of everyone who considered themselves cinephiles. I had seen “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind” and even sat through much of what I could of “My Fair Lady” and “Casablanca.”

In 2015, amid the furor prompted by April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite, it hit me: Films by and about people like me aren’t in “the canon.” They’re not seen as the best of the best of what American cinema has to offer.


The canon was not built to hold black, let alone black queer, brilliance.

Lest we forget, there surely weren’t any people of color in the academy when founded in 1927.

But when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, led by President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, announced a commitment to diversify its ranks by doubling the number of people of color and women by 2020 — after two straight years of all-white Oscar nominees in the four acting categories — I perked up. Perhaps now (or eventually) the gold standard of film would be extended to equally deserving filmmakers of and films about diverse communities.

The industry at large also took notice, with folks coming down on multiple sides of the diversity and inclusion debate. While some applauded the move, extending the challenge to agencies, studios, casting directors and filmmakers, others felt the exclusivity and prestige of the academy to be in jeopardy. Many believed that there weren’t many people of color and women as members of the elite body because they lacked the qualifications. Moreover, diversifying the ranks would outright dilute the academy’s prestige.


This thinking prompted the Los Angeles Times’ Diverse 100, a list across branches of women, people of color and LGBTQ folk we deemed worthy and qualified of the honor of membership. We believed they could help solve the academy’s, and broader Hollywood’s, diversity problem.

Readers also offered up their suggestions, and the disability community staked its space in the conversation. When the list of 2016 invitations were announced, 36 of those on our list were part of the 683 invitees from 59 countries — the most diverse class to date.

The 2017 list of invitees, announced Wednesday, is the largest class to date, at 774 people, with seven more from our Diverse 100 being welcomed into the fold: actors Naomie Harris, Rinko Kikuchi, Rodrigo Santoro and Omar Sy, executive Jeff Clanagan, publicist Ivette Rodriguez and composer Lisa Gerrard.

But while Reign finds herself yet “encouraged by this year’s class of invitees,” she told The Times, noting the academy’s continued progress as “gratifying,” others, including the Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg, feel differently.

Calling the list “well-intentioned, but misguided,” he asserted that the academy was “lowering the bar” and pandering to accusations that its membership, of primarily old white men, was racist. (Something no one in their right mind ever said, though institutionalized racism is yet alive and well.)

“The bottom line is that the Academy cannot fix the industry’s diversity problems any more than a tail can wag a dog,” he continued. “This is not a problem that can be reverse-engineered.”

Darryl Stephens (left) and Jensen Atwood in the movie “Noah’s Arc.”
Darryl Stephens (left) and Jensen Atwood in the movie “Noah’s Arc.”
(Duane Cramer)

While I reject the notion that diversifying the academy, even with people more well known for their iconic television roles, somehow makes the once-elite body a free-for-all, Feinberg is right about one thing: The whole system is corrupt. Lest we forget, there surely weren’t any people of color in the academy when founded in 1927.


But that doesn’t mean we lambaste efforts to include more people of diverse backgrounds at the table; professionals who are just as deserving and qualified — and yes, sometimes as mediocre — as their white, male counterparts. Sure, the Oscars is the hopeful last stop of a film’s journey, having first to be written and cast and directed and produced, and Hollywood needs people of diverse backgrounds involved at every step of that process.

Let’s not forget that we only ever begin to have diversity conversations when those of diverse backgrounds tire of the the cyclical bouts of a lack of representation and opportunity. And when they don’t have seats, and microphones, at the feet of the coveted golden statue, it’s one more part of that vicious cycle.

The whole industry needs to do some soul-searching. But if some feel that doing so calls into question the level of taste of the world’s most prestigious filmmaking community, I proffer this: Disband the entire organization, replacing it with an entity inclusive from the start.

Then, maybe, it won’t take 20 years for the world to tell Dunye that her life and her films matter to more than just the black queer people who see themselves fully reflected in it. It won’t take 25 years for Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” to be given its rightful place in “the canon.” And it won’t seem so audacious that two black boys from the projects of Miami dare to dream of telling a story, their story, that would one day land them in the Oscar spotlight, dumbfounded by the possibilities of a reality in which that story — “Moonlight” — was worthy.

Then, maybe, the black and brown folks — queer and otherwise, rich and poor, Christian and not, of bodies traditionally and differently abled — who’ve historically lacked access into Hollywood as well as images of ourselves on screen will have equal opportunities to succeed in this business.

Adding more seats to the table, and in effect greenlighting more diverse representations and voices as worthy, doesn’t bring down the academy’s credit score. Sure, it might mean that the white men have to become comfortable with speaking a little less and being challenged a little more, but what’s wrong with that?

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