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Academy board hopefuls want action: 'We can't wait for Hollywood to open doors'

by Darby Maloney and Michelle Lanz | The Frame

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Guests pose for a photo from the Academy photographer during the 7th annual Governors Awards ceremony presented by the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, California on November 14, 2015. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences invited nearly 700 people to become new members. It was the largest and most diverse group ever to be invited into the institution which the L.A. Times exposed in 2012 to be largely comprised of white men of a certain age.

Now, Academy members are voting for who will lead them into the future.

The Board of Governors is currently having it's first open election to fill open seats. The function of the board is to set the Academy’s agenda and help shape its policies going forward. Each of the 17 branches which includes Actors, Directors, Cinematographers, Music, Producers and more, are represented on the board. 

And each branch is responsible for choosing who gets nominated for the Academy Awards in their particular category.

The Frame spoke with three Academy members running for seats on the Board of Governors about why they want to take a leadership position in the Academy at this time of change.

Roger Ross Williams, Director 

Roger Ross Williams is a member of the Documentary branch at the Academy. He made Oscar history in 2010 when he became the first African American director to win an Academy Award. That was for the documentary short, “Music By Prudence." His most film is full length documentary "Life, Animated" which premiered at Sundance and is in theaters now.

Director Roger Ross Williams attends the CNN Films Cocktail Reception during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival at Hotel Americano on April 20, 2015 in New York City.
Director Roger Ross Williams attends the CNN Films Cocktail Reception during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival at Hotel Americano on April 20, 2015 in New York City. Cindy Ord/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribec

Why are you running for a board seat?

The doc division is great because I think we're way ahead of the other branches of the Academy and we do have a diverse membership. But, you know, it's not enough. I think that the Academy does great work in education and we need to really push diversity by encouraging people from underserved communities to really want to become documentary filmmakers.

I think what you're really describing is the Academy kind of changing its disposition to be more proactive rather than reactive.

Exactly. We can't wait for Hollywood to open doors for us. We have to open doors for ourselves.

Even though the Academy invited a record number of new members who are minorities. The number of African Americans who are currently running for board seats this year is only four — you are one of those four. Does that fact alone reflect how much growth the Academy still has to do?

Absolutely, absolutely. We in the documentary branch just invited our first African American women to join the branch. Dawn Porter, Shola Lynch and Laurens Grant. Can you imagine that we just assumed there were African American women in the branch but there were not? This says a lot about where the Academy is, but also a lot about where we're going to go. This is, like I said, the beginning.

In January, you wrote in the Hollywood Reporter, "There are simply too many Academy members who were voted in during a less inclusive era and still remain a large voting bloc even though they haven't worked in the field for decades." How do you deal with that group of people who feel, if they are asked to leave, they are being disenfranchised?

Well, they don't have to leave the Academy. They're losing their voting rights. I think if you're not an active part of the community, if you're not working in the industry, then you shouldn't vote. It's that simple. They can be in the Academy and can enjoy the benefits of being an Academy member, but I think the voters need to be people who are active in the community because this is about your peers. This is about peers voting for the people in your branch and I think that's important.

Sharen K. Davis, Costume Designer

Sharen K. Davis is a member of the Costume Designers branch of the Academy. She joined in 2002. She was nominated for an Oscar for her work on "Ray" in 2004.  Some of her other credits include "Django Unchained," the upcoming Antoine Fuqua movie "The Magnificent Seven," and the Denzel Washington film "Fences." 

Costume Designer Sharen Davis arrives at the 9th annual Costume Designers Guild Awards held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on February 17, 2007 in Beverly Hills, California.
Costume Designer Sharen Davis arrives at the 9th annual Costume Designers Guild Awards held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on February 17, 2007 in Beverly Hills, California. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

What was your response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy?

When you sit down and look at the two hundred something films that were shot in a year and, as a costume designer, you have to pick five, I get overwhelmed. All my thoughts of color go out the window because I got into creative mode. We have our years and we don't have our years. We've had some good years where there have been a lot of people of color nominated.

You are running for a board seat in the costuming branch of the Academy. If you're elected to the board of governor, what would be your first order of business? 

I'm running for governor because I feel I can be a positive advocate and ambassador in representing the Academy's recent step toward further inclusivity and helping people who don't know that they can actually do this position or think it's above them.

What are the most important things to you and what do you hope to do, if you are elected, to change, not only the costume designers branch, but the overall Academy?

I really think that the Academy should take necessary steps in recognizing talent and diversity. And it's not just African Americans but all people of color.

Laura Karpman, Composer

Laura Karpman is a member of the Music branch. She's a relatively new member of the Academy having joined last year. Her film credits include “Black Nativity” and the documentaries “States of Grace” and “The Galapagos Affair.” Karpman is also the President and co-founder of the Alliance For Women Film Composers. 

Four-time Emmy-winning composer Laura Karpman is running for the music branch.
Four-time Emmy-winning composer Laura Karpman is running for the music branch. Laura Karpman/Berklee

What made you decide to run for a leadership position on the Academy’s board?

I really responded to the Academy's call for diversity. It's kind of a word I hate, but I understand the intention behind it. I fundamentally feel that the Academy is in a fantastic leadership role. It doesn't have to follow the trends in Hollywood, it can lead the trends in Hollywood. I wanted to be a part of that. So I'm running and hopefully will be able to affect some of those changes that well all know we need in this town.

In a statement made to The Hollywood Reporter about your candidacy's platform, you said, "Every minute of every day I am thrilled and honored to be able to practice my art. Although I have had great success, I've also experienced mind-blowing sexism." What do you mean by that?

(Laughs) Well, I've gotten fired from jobs because my music is not masculine enough. Things like that. Little comments. The little things that you hear every day that you brush over in an early career but then as you get older and you've heard them five million times you say, Okay, maybe we need to change. But I think more than that I see that there's a real inequity in the way that people of color and women advance. There seems to be less facility in that and I think that's something we need to look at. The other thing we talk about a lot that strikes me as so strange is there's an invisibility of a community that already exists. Our alliance — we have over 125 members and that's just a fraction of the women composers who exist and are working. I don't know why it is that people are constantly saying there aren't any women composers because there are. Having said that, I'm not naive. I know that women compose 2% of the top 250 box office films. As soon as we become more visible, it's my belief that we can start doing those bigger projects, which we're not doing right now.

92 percent of your branch, the music branch, is white men.

Look, we have a big ugly problem but I think we're starting to fix it. I gotta tell you, if you asked me that three years ago, I would have rolled my eyes, shrugged my shoulders and I would have shrunk into my chair in depression and said, this is what it is. But, I do think there's a movement. Now, whether that movement starts to reflect more work in the top class of Hollywood projects, I don't know that. I can't predict that. But what I can tell you is this year, we're going to have a really diverse class in the music branch. I can tell you, as long as I am there and as long as anybody will listen to me, either as a governor or just a member, any way that we are going to continue to push for these things. That excites me. I think there's hope.

Follow Williams and Karpman on Twitter: @RogerRossWill and @Laura_Karpman 

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