Academy Awards are about to get serious about diversity

From the emotional acceptance speeches by Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan to the sweet rendition of a Carpenters song by Indian composer M.M. Keeravani, it was obvious how racially diverse the winners were at the Academy Awards on Monday.

There were all sorts of Oscar records for diversity – four acting nominees of Asian descent for two wins, two Indian wins, a costume designer who became the first black woman to win twice, and All Quiet On The Western Front’s four awards for a foreign language film.

Ke Huy Quan and Michelle Yeoh backstage at the Oscars.Credit:Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

While it seems like the awards have made great progress since the #OscarsSoWhite protests about all white acting nominees in 2015 and 2016, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is about to get more serious about diversity.

From the next Oscars, films will need to meet new standards of representation to be eligible for best picture.

The Academy says these standards are “designed to encourage equitable representation on and off screen in order to better reflect the diversity of the movie-going audience”.

Films will have to meet two out of four criteria that measure the participation by women, under-represented racial or ethnic groups, members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with a disability.

The first standard, for example, requires a best picture nominee to have:

  • At least one actor from an under-represented racial or ethnic group in a significant role;
  • At least 30 per cent of the cast who are women, from an under-represented racial or ethnic group, members of the LGBTQ+ community or people with a disability.
  • A story or theme that centres on women, an under-represented racial or ethnic group, the LGBTQ+ community or people with a disability.

That criteria would have ruled out two best picture nominees with white casts because of their subject matter this year: The Banshees of Inisherin and All Quiet On The Western Front.

But those films could have met two of the other three criteria, which require representation in key creative and other crew roles; paid internships or training opportunities; or jobs in distribution, marketing and publicity.

Everything Everywhere All At Once star Key Huy Quan accepting the award for best performance by an actor in a supporting role.Credit:AP

When the measures were announced in 2020, there was a wave of angry criticism.

Actress Kirstie Alley, who has since died, called the rules “dictatorial” and “anti-artist”. Actor Dean Cain tweeted: “How about we judge on this criteria – which film was the BEST PICTURE?”

A former member of the Trump cabinet, Richard Grenell, claimed the new standards were the work of “the Democrats controlling Hollywood” and the award would now be for “the most politically correct picture”.

That criticism seemed to settle down when it was realised that many best picture contenders already met the new criteria or could skirt around them by focusing on internships and hiring women and gay men to publicise their films.

At least on screen, the last three best picture winners have had no trouble meeting the new standards.

Nomadland, CODA and Everything Everywhere all had female central characters and diverse casts. The first two were directed by women; the third had women in key creative roles.

For many American production companies and studios, the criteria will be easy criteria to meet. Marvel, DC and the Star Wars producers never make a movie any more without actors from diverse backgrounds playing diverse characters.

Distributor A24, which swept the six top categories at the Oscars with Everything Everywhere and The Whale, routinely makes inclusive films.

Michelle Yeoh accepts her Oscar for best actress in Everything Everywhere All At Once.Credit:AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

But it will be interesting to see how many films skirt the new criteria rather than being more inclusive in substantial ways, whether any films are ruled out of best picture consideration and whether these measures encourage a broader range of stories as Hollywood accepts the ground rules have changed.

What happens if an Australian film is such a breakout success that it makes it all the way to the Oscars?

Of the five most recent best picture nominees, Mad Max: Fury Road, Lion, Australia-New Zealand’s The Power of the Dog and Elvis would easily qualify but it’s less clear-cut for Hacksaw Ridge.

The smartest Australian producers are already thinking this way. But there is evidence that even if what’s on screen is diverse by all these measures, inclusiveness on film sets matters.

A report commissioned by the Australian Cinematographers Society that was released last year showed camera departments have been havens for sexual harassment, bullying, racism and discrimination about sexuality, age and disability.

If it takes a prompt from the Oscars for that to end, it will be worth the effort.

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Email Garry Maddox at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @gmaddox.

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