“Introducing the Academy class of 2016,” reads the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences website announcement of its invited new members Wednesday. And while joining that august organization is a singular honor, many say they were surprised to learn of their inclusion — mainly because they hadn’t applied for membership. Traditionally, that’s a laborious process that can take years before you get recommended by peers, vetted by your branch, and finally invited. Every year it’s a shock that someone like, say Tina Fey, IFC’s Arianna Bocco, last year’s Oscar-winner Margaret Sixel (“Mad Max: Fury Road”), or Oscar marketer Lisa Taback, wasn’t already a member.
At the heart of the Academy’s complex diversity issue is how much the Oscars reflect the way that the Academy likes to view itself. Believe me, they were horrified when, given 20 opportunities, their 6,000 members failed to nominate any actors of color last year. The Academy wants to make changes, and they have been aggressively inviting a younger, more diverse membership ever since CEO Dawn Hudson and president Cheryl Boone Isaacs have been in charge. They know the problem. They want to move the needle, but it has been slow going. While the Academy had actively increased the number of member invites to women and people of color, Isaacs swiftly promised more radical changes after the Oscars So White controversy.
So this year, the Academy went crazy. They tripled the number of invites from 2014, and doubled the number (322) from last year, inviting a total of 683. And as a result, the needle actually moved. Of the 683 invited, 46% are women; assuming they all accept, the Academy will now be 27% female rather than 25%. By asking 41% people of color, the percentage changed from 8% to 11%.
It’s as if the Academy invited the people who might have actually voted for “Beasts of No Nation,” whose writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga and star Idris Elba have finally been invited to join the Academy, or “Straight Outta Compton,” whose producer/subject Ice Cube was invited as both an actor and a writer, or “Creed,” whose writer-director Ryan Coogler (they get to choose which branch they want to join) and stars Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson are on the Academy invite list.
Check out the other actors: Mahershala Ali, Enrique Castillo, Loretta Devine, Anthony Anderson, Adam Beach, John Boyega, Chadwick Boseman, Morris Chestnut, Carmen Ejogo, Julie Carmen, Vivica A. Fox, America Ferrara, Dennis Haysbert, Jesse D. Goins, Regina King, Nia Long, James Hong, Daniel Dae Kim, Byung-Hun Lee, Ignacio López Tarso, Eva Mendes, Marisa Paredes, Adepero Oduye, Tatsuya Nakadai, Nate Parker, Harold Perrineau, Jorge Perugorría, Michelle Rodriguez, Anika Noni Rose, Cecilia Roth, Pepe Serna, Elizabeth Sung. Sharmila Tagore, Lorraine Toussaint, Jacob Vargas, Gabrielle Union, Damon Wayans, Jr., and Marlon Wayans.
Dramatically, in the Directors Branch, 53 women were invited to join; that represents a 150% increase over the total women previously in the branch (35), which would bring the total to 88. African-American director Julie Dash has 14 directing credits, and directed her most famous film, “Daughter of the Dust,” in 1991. Some were gobsmacked to get the invite. (Lexi Alexander learned on Twitter, although Isaacs did send everyone a welcome email at 11 AM Pacific.)
Similarly, nine women, many of them among the 283 international film folks invited from 59 countries, were invited to the male-dominated cinematographers branch.
The Academy Board of Governors has already voted to put through other changes. They added three new members, who unlike the other 51 governors, are not elected by the individual branches. Director Reginald Hudlin, who co-produced this year’s Oscars, writer Gregory Nava (“Frida”) and animator Jennifer Yuh Nelson (“Kung Fu Panda 2”) were confirmed by the current Board members for three-year terms.
Six members were also added to board oversight committees. Actor Gael García Bernal (“Y Tu Mama Tambien”) joined the Awards and Events Committee. Cinematographer Amy Vincent (“Hustle & Flow”) is now on the Preservation and History Committee. Producer Effie Brown (“Project Greenlight”) joined the Museum Committee. Executives Marcus Hu (Strand Releasing) and animator Floyd Norman (“Monsters Inc.”) were added to the Education and Outreach Committee. Executive Vanessa Morrison (Fox Animation Studios) is on the Finance Committee. Producer (“Beyond the Lights”) and Los Angeles Film Festival director Stephanie Allain is on the Membership and Administration Committee.
As for the thorny question of how to assess a member’s voting rights, the Board reaffirmed its January 21 resolution to make sure Academy voters are active in the motion picture industry. The Board agreed to let each branch’s executive committee determine specific criteria for active voters based on the guidelines established in January.
Another change this year is that all members can now run for a seat on the Board of Governors. The likes of director Steven Spielberg and publicist Bruce Feldman are in the process of campaigning now.
Other key newbies include Music branch invites Mary Blige, RZA and Will.i.am, producers Debra Martin Chase and producer Roy Lee, publicist branch’s Cassandra Butcher, Fumiko Kitihara Otto, Arnold Robinson and New York marketing exec Ryan Werner, and writers Sherman Alexie, Destin Daniel Cretton, David Henry Hwang, and Miranda July.
In any case, the Oscar race this year is already packed with probable contenders of color, including Academy invitee Nate Parker, the multi-hyphenate star of “Birth of a Nation.”