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Two Asian American filmmakers react to Academy's plans to expand membership

by John Horn and Robert Garrova | The Frame

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Oscars are on display in the entrance to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Hollywood Costume exhibition at the Wilshire May Company Building. The show opens October 2. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Following a board of governors meeting yesterday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced has appointed key people of color to leadership positions. It is expanding the size of its Board of Governors to include three new members from underrepresented groups and a number of branch committees will also have new members. The intention behind all of these appointments is to include filmmakers of color in all aspects of the Academy business -- from outreach to young filmmakers, to the new museum and everything in between.

This news comes after months of controversy over the lack of diversity and just a day after a group of 25 Asian American members of the Academy -- including Oscar-winning director Ang Lee -- signed a letter complaining about offensive jokes about Asians at this year’s Oscars. That letter was sent to Dawn Hudson, the Academy’s chief executive, and Cheryl Boone Isaacs, its president.

The Frame’s John Horn spoke with two Asian American filmmakers who both signed the letter, Marcus Hu and Freida Lee Mock, to hear their reactions to the changes and to how the Academy responded to their letter.

Marcus Hu is a producer and co-president of the independent film distributor Strand Releasing. He was just asked to join the Academy’s Education and Outreach Committee.

So you were just named to the Academy’s Education and Outreach Committee, can you tell us a little about what that entails?

... Educational outreach is probably going to include the schools in the area and nationwide and so forth. The directives haven’t been set yet but we’re looking forward to having our first meeting shortly.

Is part of the outreach to make sure that people who are eligible become members of the Academy and that you are cultivating new members who might broaden the Academy’s makeup.

I think that this is going to start at a much earlier level. I mean, I think we’re talking about high schools, we’re talking about colleges we’re talking about doing that kind of outreach for education. It’s to cultivate talent in school level for the industry. And to do specific outreach for those in areas who might not be able to have access to the Academy or know about the Academy and what we do.

In your career, how would you assess the progress -- or lack of progress -- for movies made by people other than straight white men?

I mean, that’s really a hard one. First of all, I’m not in the studio system. I’m only kind of a viewer. I’m more in the independent field of film. So, in the independent side of film, you do see a lot of diversity incorporated. When I look at studio films it is kind of odd because there are some years where you do see diversity on the forefront and other years are completely dry... You know, there were some performances in this past Academy season that should have been maybe recognized more, like “Straight Outta Compton.” And that was produced by Universal. But at the end of the day... you look at the how many Asian Americans are there in the acting branch -- and it’s so few. There’s so few opportunities given to people of color... There are Asian Americans in things like “Fast and the Furious 7,” and we are getting those kinds of roles and we are getting those kind of directing jobs -- Justin Lin gets his opportunity to direct. But those aren’t the films necessarily that are ones that are going to be acknowledged by the Academy other than in maybe a technical category.

Freida Lee Mock is the director, producer and writer of the Oscar-winning documentary feature “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.” She’s also a former Governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

We now know that there will be three new members added to the ranks of the Academy’s Board of Governors who are all people of color. What power do the Governor's really have and how can they change the way in which movies are honored and recognized in the Oscar show itself?

I think they have a lot of power in decision making on how they want the show to be. And certainly this year there was a really loud commitment to be inclusive and diverse in the way the Oscars show was to be presented. To the extent that the leadership under President Cheryl Boone Isaacs has made a commitment to lead the industry as opposed to follow.

I want to ask a little bit more about the Oscars ceremony itself. Chris Rock did talk about Hollywood and racism but there were a couple of jokes made at the expense of Asian Americans. You were one of the signatories to a letter that was sent to the Academy complaining about these racist jokes. What was your impressions of the Academy’s response to the letter?

Well the Academy -- immediately through CEO Dawn Hudson -- wrote a response saying they recognized some of the issues and that our letter was welcome. We felt that the one issue that we wanted noted was concrete steps. That specifically was not addressed in the apology letter from the CEO. And I think we who wrote and endorsed the letter look forward to something more concrete.

And what might those concrete steps look like?

I think we would like to see that they are aware of and sensitive to cultural differences. And that what some of us thought was very tone-deaf -- the fact that they would even do a skit with three children playing into a stereotype that was rather shocking to most of us.  

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