The news that veteran film and television figure Reginald Hudlin would be one of the two people producing the Oscars this year was greeted with warm fanfare by those who care about diversity and a ceremony reflective of a cross-section of America.
Hudlin, after all, has credits on racially diverse movies that are both commercial ("House Party," Boomerang") and elevated ("Django Unchained"). He also served as president of entertainment for BET and has executive produced the NAACP awards show.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which oversees the Oscars, is still struggling to even the scales when it comes to minority membership, in the wake of a comprehensive study by The Times in 2012 that found that 94% of the group's members were Caucasian. The organization has made some significant strides: Its 322 new members this year were at least 23% people of color, according to an analysis by The Times. The group now has a black president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a black 2016 honorary-award recipient, Spike Lee and, as of Tuesday, a black telecast producer.
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It is also only a matter of time before the show has a black host again. (The Oscars had five black hosts between 1994 and 2005 but has not had one since.) Kevin Hart, for one, has been pushing for the job.
And yet the focus will be — as it almost always is, as it almost always should be — on the diversity of the nominees.
Oscar voters can only choose from among the movies made--which is why it becomes such a big deal when a slam-dunk candidate like David Oyelowo, giving what was widely regarded as a tour de force performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in "Selma," is left off the list. (Last year was a tough one in this regard for the Oscars, which failed to find a non-white nominee in any of its 20 acting slots for only the second time since 1998. The academy sought to make up for it in June by inviting Oyelowo to join the group.)
Will Oscar voters take the opportunities this year if given them? Certainly it seems like they'll have a few. Don Cheadle's "Miles Ahead," about the jazz great Miles Davis, could provide a contender in directing and acting categories. Quentin Tarantino's "Hateful Eight" offers his typically diverse cast and could spell acting nominations for several people of minority backgrounds. The Will Smith-starring "Concussion," about a doctor crusading against head injuries in the NFL, will attract news headlines and possibly awards attention. The Africa-set child-soldier pic "Beasts of No Nation" and the Pakistani doc "He Named Me Malala" will shine a light on people of color in the developing world.
And this summer's hit "Straight Outta Compton," while hardly a conventional awards picture, could make a case for some prizes, though how much Universal will push for it remains a question (the studio has a number of more traditional contenders, including "Steve Jobs," "Everest" and "Legend").
When it comes to blacks and the Oscars, the news isn't always bleak: It was just 18 months ago that "12 Years a Slave" won best picture, adapted screenplay and supporting actress prizes. But events like these can feel like distant memories — because the Twitterized news cycle has an amnesiac effect, yes, but also because there's something uncomfortable that tends to happen in its wake. "Slave" was supposed to feel like the beginning of a shift. But when "Selma" was snubbed, it felt retroactively more like an anomaly, almost as though the academy was collectively saying, "We honored a black movie last year; doesn't that let us off the hook for a while?"
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There promises to be more inclusiveness at this year's show in other respects. A slew of gay and transgender stories — "Freeheld," "The Danish Girl" and "Carol," to name just three — are set to hit the circuit and contend for prizes. The British women's-rights pic "Suffragette" promises to turn the attention to important gender issues, as does "Malala." But whether, in this Black Lives Matter moment, movies featuring people of color land front and center at the Oscars remains to be seen.
No amount of the right intentions can make movies good, and a producer like Hudlin can't make voters choose these films even if they are good. But the academy sets a tone — not only for the show, but for the movies that garner a push. If awards consultants see a theme emerge, it could induce them to campaign for movies, could persuade them to convince studios to spend marketing dollars on contenders they otherwise would not have. On Tuesday, Hudlin just became a part of that theme. We'll see how much it develops.