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How the Motion Picture Academy plans to move past #OscarsSoWhite

Motion Picture Academy board member Phil Alden Robinson is confident that the organization will become more diverse, but agrees with critics that change has been slow to come.
Motion Picture Academy board member Phil Alden Robinson is confident that the organization will become more diverse, but agrees with critics that change has been slow to come.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Motion Picture Academy board member Phil Alden Robinson is confident that the organization will become more diverse, but agrees with critics that change has been slow to come.
For the second year in a row, Motion Picture Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs has had to deal with controversy surrounding the lack of Oscar nominations for actors and actresses of color.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

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The ongoing controversy surrounding the Oscars has prompted a response from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Ever since this year’s Oscar nominees were announced on Jan. 14, the Academy has been blasted because — for the second consecutive year — all 20 people in the best and supporting actor and actress categories are white. And two well-received films with largely African American casts, “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton," were not among the Best Picture nominees.

The Academy on Jan. 22 announced its first steps toward achieving more diversity, saying it intends to double the number of non-white members by the year 2020. Still, critics abound, and some African-American actors say they will boycott the ceremony on February 28th.

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Joining us to talk about the Academy’s changes is Phil Alden Robinson. He is Secretary of the Academy’s Board of Governors and chairs the membership committee. He also represents the Writers Branch on the board. He spoke with us about the Academy's plans to ensure that #OscarsSoWhite becomes a thing of the past.

Interview Highlights:

If Idris Elba, for example, had been nominated this year, or if "Creed" or "Straight Outta Compton" had been nominated for best picture, do you think these changes would have been made this year? What was the tipping point?

Certainly in the last two years the criticism that we have gotten was well-deserved, in my mind, not because of the nominations, but because our membership is so un-diverse. We're trying to be a relevant organization in the 21st century and, frankly, we were behind the times on this. We were too slow to act. I think these controversies were very helpful in focusing our attention on things that we should have been focused on before.

The Academy is an honorary society that reflects a body of work in Hollywood. So the Academy can do all it wants to do, make all the changes it wants to make, but if people of color and women aren't getting hired, what can the Academy do? What do you think the Academy's role is with the rest of the industry in this regard?

Well, first, let me just correct something. We don't represent achievement in Hollywood, we represent achievement in cinema, so we're casting a much wider net these days. We're looking much more at independent films and international filmmakers. We really don't want to be regarded as "the Hollywood system."

But you're absolutely right that the basic problem — and Spike Lee spoke very eloquently about this last week — is that the industry does not provide enough opportunity for minorities, both in hiring and in green-lighting. So, since we draw our membership from people who have succeeded and who have had significant careers in that system, what can we do?

We can cast a wider net than we're casting now — we've traditionally looked mostly towards Hollywood, big-studio films for our members. We are embarking on, really, an unprecedented recruitment drive for new members that's going to look outside — and inside — the Hollywood system. We've never really had a systematic, energetic way to recruit highly-qualified, wonderful members who represent more diversity. We have one now, and we're putting it in place right now, and it will affect this year's incoming class.

The Academy's goals of doubling the number of women and minorities by the year 2020 would mean that women would compose 48% of the membership of the Academy, while members of diverse groups, people of color, would be 14% of the total membership. Those are certainly admirable goals, but 14% is still low, and not really representative of the minority makeup of the country. Are these moves aggressive enough?

I don't think that we necessarily want to reflect the demographics of the country, because we don't represent the country — we represent the most talented, accomplished people in the motion picture business. And I think, as you said, the industry is far behind. We're going to do way better than we've done, and we're not going to stop when we get there — we're just going to keep doing it.

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