Academy president responds to criticism about lack of diversity among Oscar nominees

With all the accolades the civil rights drama Selma has received since its Christmas opening, some feel its failure to get nominations for director Ava DuVernay or star David Oyelowo reflects a racial bias.

In this year’s Oscars, all 20 of the acting nominees are white – an issue that has led to the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite trending on Twitter. Dan Steinberg / Invision / AP Photo
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Responding for the first time to the firestorm that erupted over the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations, film academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs says the all-white line-up of actors inspires her to accelerate the academy’s push for more diversity.

The first black president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences spoke out on Friday, January 16, in an interview about the Oscar nominations and the widespread criticism that followed.

All 20 of this year's acting contenders are white and there are no women in the directing or writing categories. After the nominations were announced on Thursday morning, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite started trending on Twitter.

The Asian Pacific American Media Coalition issued a statement on Friday saying the nominations balloting “obviously reflects a lack of diversity in Oscar voters as well as in films generally”.

Yet Boone Isaacs insists the academy is “committed to seeking out diversity of voice and opinion” and that outreach to women and artists of colour is a major focus.

“In the last two years, we’ve made greater strides than we ever have in the past toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organisation through admitting new members and more inclusive classes of members,” says Boone Isaacs. “And, personally, I would love to see and look forward to see a greater cultural diversity among all our nominees in all of our categories.”

She declined to address whether she and the academy were embarrassed by the line-up of white contenders, instead insisting that she’s proud of the nominees, all of whom deserve recognition.

She explains that all voting is individual and confidential. Each branch comes up with its own criteria for excellence, she says, and each nominates its colleagues. For instance, only directors can suggest Best Director nominees and only actors can nominate actors. But the entire academy membership can submit suggestions for Best Picture.

“There is not one central body or group of people that sit around the table and come up with nominations,” she says. “It really is a peer-to-peer process.”

With all the accolades the civil rights drama Selma has received since its Christmas opening, some feel its failure to get nominations for director Ava DuVernay or star David Oyelowo reflects a racial bias.

"What is important not to lose sight of, is that Selma, which is a fantastic motion picture, was nominated for Best Picture this year, and the Best Picture category is voted on by the entire membership of around 7,000 people," says Boone Isaacs.

Besides Best Picture, the film received just one additional nod – for Original Song – in what was widely viewed as a significant snub. But fans shouldn't feel that way, she says: "It's nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. It's an award that showcases the talent of everyone involved in the production of the movie Selma."

Boone Isaacs insists the five Best Actor nominees – Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) and Michael Keaton (Birdman) – "are all at the top of their game".

Diversity outreach is spread among the academy’s 17 branches, she says, since existing members recruit new ones.

“This is a membership organisation, so we are all involved in this discussion and moving the subject of diversity forward,” she says. “It’s very important for us to continue to make strides to increase our membership and the recognition of talent.”

In its statement, the Asian coalition said the responsibility for diversity in film should be industry-wide.

“It behoves Hollywood – as an economic imperative, if not a moral one – to begin more closely reflecting the changing face of America,” the statement said.

Boone Isaacs agrees, saying that as the academy “continues to make strides toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organisation, we hope the film industry will also make strides toward becoming more diverse and inclusive”.

Though she repeatedly stressed the Oscars are a competitive process and that she’s proud of the year’s nominees, Boone Isaacs acknowledged that diversity needs to be mandatory in both story and storyteller.

“It matters that we pay attention to, again, the diversity of voice and opinion and experience, and that it doesn’t slide, it doesn’t slide anywhere except for forward,” she says. “And maybe this year is more just about ‘let’s kick it in’ even more.”