Hollywood has always straddled the line between authenticity and artifice, both onscreen and off. In the old-school studio system, it wasn’t unusual for an actor’s “real” identity to be as much a work of fiction as the movies he starred in. Backstories were fabricated; facts were massaged; private lives were obscured. Gay stars pretended to be heterosexual playboys, recognizably ethnic surnames were traded for anglicized ones, and mixed-race actors who could pass as white often took pains to do so.
In the next few years, the Hollywood game-playing surrounding identity may well take a new turn, with actors scrambling to classify themselves outside the white, cis, and heterosexual norms that their predecessors hewed to. This week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) handed down a brand new set of diversity and inclusion requirements, which films must start meeting in 2022 (with full rollout in 2024) to be eligible for Best Picture consideration. Those who want a shot at the Oscar will need to make sure their production meets those standards in at least two of the following four categories: “Onscreen Representation, Themes and Narratives,” “Creative Leadership and Project Team,” “Industry Access and Opportunities,” and “Audience Development.”
Although this announcement came at a moment when diversity commitments are particularly trendy, anyone who’s followed the Oscars and its attendant controversies over the past few years will know that it’s been brewing for much longer. It was 2015 when an all-white slate of acting nominees first prompted a viral backlash against the Academy and its yearly awards ceremony, a P.R. nightmare that Hollywood has been clumsily trying to overcome ever since. Prior to now, the biggest initiative was a 2018 mass recruitment of new members, which nudged the Academy’s makeup ever so slightly in a more diverse direction while making no real impact on its overall hegemony of white males. Unlike the Academy’s other efforts, this latest move carries a whiff of control, not just over Oscars consideration, but over the art itself.
To check that first box—”Onscreen Representation, Themes and Narratives”—a movie needs one of the following: a leading or major supporting actor from “an underrepresented racial or ethnic group,” a supporting cast made up of at least 30 percent underrepresented categories (including women, people of color, sexual minorities, or disabled people), or a storyline that focuses on one of the aforementioned groups.
On its own, the conflation of diversity with quality raises interesting questions; under these standards, the massive Fast & Furious franchise would be Oscar eligible, but Martin Scorcese’s entire library would struggle to make the cut. But in practice, it’s not Hollywood’s major players who will be scrambling under the new regulations. The higher your budget—and the bigger your back office—the easier it will be to meet these criteria. If they wanted to, big studios could completely ignore the “Representation” and “Creative Leadership” categories that dictate which stories are told by who, and continue to make prestige pictures by and about white men, knowing that they could simply check “Audience Development” and “Industry Access” boxes by filling marketing positions and internship programs with a diverse staff. Instead, the impact will be felt most by indie directors, who work on shoestring budgets, with limited resources and no guarantee of being picked up by a distributor with adequately diverse executive leadership. For them, it becomes a choice: sacrifice their shot at the industry’s highest honor (with all the career-boosting benefits an Oscar nomination entails), or conform.
Some may shrug at that, or even see it as a net positive in a world where too many movies already exist about straight white dudes. On the other hand, the list of movies that would be shut out from Oscar contention under the “Representation” standard is pretty, well, diverse. The Hurt Locker; Boyhood; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Birdman; The Lighthouse; 1917; Gladiator; Gone Girl: All would fail to make the cut.
That’s assuming the AMPAS rules actually go into effect, instead of imploding in a maelstrom of grasping identitarianism, opportunistic comings-out, internecine fights about which groups count as “underrepresented,” and uncomfortable questions about how the Academy intends to enforce its own standards. (As the essayist Wesley Yang noted on Twitter, the current literature suggests that sets would undergo “spot checks” for the presence of marginalized cast and crew, an idea that would be amusing if it weren’t so incredibly creepy.) This month has even introduced one riveting example of how incentivizing people to lay claim to marginalized identities can have unexpected and toxic results: Jessica Krug, a professor at George Washington University, confessed that she had been passing as a black woman from the Bronx when in fact she was born to Jewish middle-class parents in Kansas. Krug claimed that she was motivated by mental illness and childhood trauma, but it’s also clear that the charade had its perks; not only did she have access career opportunities and resources reserved for people of color, but her assumed identity granted her status and power in an academic culture where any claim of oppression holds enormous sway.
It’s not that 2024 will usher in a role-reversed reboot of the bad old days, when white-passing actress Merle Oberon pretended her own grandmother was a servant in her household to hide the truth about her heritage from racist Hollywood; it’s more that the Academy doesn’t seem to have really thought through the implications of its own guidelines. Imagine the arguments over whether Jews count as underrepresented, and if not, why. Imagine actors whipping out their 23andMe results to prove their nonwhite status. Imagine the bewildered Academy trying to nominate a Best Actor and Best Actress from a sea of young celebs who’ve all adopted nonbinary identities and they/them pronouns in order to help check the LGBT box for their films’ Best Picture nod.
All this would be happening against a backdrop of little or no change to the actual slate of Best Picture nominees, which will continue as always to be dominated by prestige pictures from major studios with the occasional, diversity-compliant indie darling (such as Moonlight) in the mix. The new standards will do nothing to resolve the fierce and ongoing debates about representation and racism in Hollywood; movies like Green Book or The Help, which activists hated, would be considered diversity success stories under the new rules. If this is the Academy’s best play for relevance and moral authority in a rapidly shifting entertainment landscape, it’s no wonder that nobody bothers to watch the Oscars anymore.