'Green Book' Winning Proves the Oscars Are Still Really, Really White
The Academy has made an honest effort to get more diverse, but transformative change is still a ways off.
Photo of Peter Farrelly by Matt Petit - Handout/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty
Whether you enjoyed Sunday night’s Oscars or viewed the host-free affair as a nadir for the brand, nearly everyone seems to agree about one thing: Green Book’s upset best picture win was not a good look. Eyes were already rolling when the unnecessary white savior drama was nominated and Mahershala Ali’s discomfort was palpable as he accepted a best supporting actor Oscar for his role in the film. But when Crash 2: Italian Boogaloo took home the night’s highest honors, Oscar attendees and home viewers alike collectively shook their heads in disbelief.
The scandal-fraught telling of pianist Don Shirley’s 1962 tour through the deep South netting best picture doesn’t just indicate that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hasn’t yet learned from its past sins. The unpopular decision also casts a specter over the trophies it gave out to minority nominees. Deserving of their wins as Regina King, Spike Lee, Ruth E. Carter, and Hannah Beachler may be, their accolades were doled out by the same voting body that chose the celluloid equivalent of an “ALL lives matter” bumper sticker as the best film of 2018. This may indicate more of an internal struggle than changing of the guard within the Academy. But once you look into how little the demographics of the voting body have actually shifted since the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, Green Book's win begins to make sense.
The above hashtag, coined in 2015 by writer April Reign to highlight the abysmal levels of diversity, representation, and inclusion in the industry, both on- and off-screen, spurred Hollywood's biggest night to address one of the systemic issues that has plagued the institution for nearly a century. The 51 members of the Academy’s Board of Governors—49 of whom were white—took what they described as “historic action to increase diversity” in 2016, unanimously voting to increase membership with the goal of “doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.” (It's worth noting that an Academy Award nomination doesn't automatically grant individuals entry into the voting body of the Academy, so first-time minority nominees like Yalitza Aparicio and Gabourey Sidibe are not guaranteed future participation rights.)
In the years since that decision, the Academy has, to its credit, ramped up efforts to induct a broader spectrum of members. Its 2016 membership drive saw 683 new members join—46 percent women and 41 percent people of color. In 2017, 774 new members were inducted, but this time 39 percent were women and 30 percent were POCs. The trend continued, with the 2018 inductions pulling a record 928 new members. Forty percent of those were women and 38 percent were people of color.
Three years of progress can’t correct decades of underrepresentation. These recent boosts have only raised the total number of women and POC in the Academy’s 9,200-plus membership to 31 and 16 percent, respectively. If membership enrollment continues at its current rate, by 2020 the Academy will be at 21.3 percent POCs, but be well below its gender parity goal with only 35 percent female membership.
With only about 2,850 women members today, the Academy would need to place a temporary moratorium on inducting men while adding 3,500 women over the next two years to reach its goal of equilibrium by 2020.
Beyond being a bunch of white men, the Academy is also quite old. A 2012 LA Times survey found the average member’s age to be 63. While we don’t have the current membership’s average age, that number has almost certainly dropped at least a hair during the membership’s growth of the past three years—but the voting body's average age could explain why it was so fond of nostalgia-fests like Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody.
April Reign told VICE that more than Academy voter demographics, she believes It is this desire for familiar content that lead to Green Book being chosen as best picture. "Can we give credit for Hannah Beachler and Ruth Carter winning, but then say that it’s unchanged and that’s why Green Book won? I don’t think so," said Reign. "Instead, I think that there are still certain types of movies that the Academy is most comfortable with, and Green Book is one of those types."
Not letting Green Book off the hook entirely, Reign added that she believed the film "would have been a much richer story had Dr. Shirley’s story been told from his vantage point, with the consultation and support of his family." To help avoid these missteps in the future, she stressed the importance of screenwriters' consulting with their subject matter or their relatives "to ensure both accuracy in the narrative and that permission is received to tell the story."
Other commentators were less hesitant than Reign to pin Green Book's win on The Academy's whiteness. Given the optics of a cabal of mostly white, mostly older men who believe themselves to be champions of minorities picking 2019’s Oscar winners, it only makes sense that comparisons were quickly made to the father from Get Out after the final envelope of the evening was read.
But the above data paints a surprisingly optimistic future for the Academy. There's a slightly rosy way to look at Green Book's win, even if you hated the film: It doesn't show that the Academy is the same as it ever was, but rather that a combination of factors led to it sneaking into an undeserved win.
The movie could be seen as the Oscar season version of Donald Trump during the 2016 primaries: A dark horse winner that likely capitalized on a crowded field where other options split the vote. (This is a guess, since we'll never know the vote totals in the Oscars.) But, as is the case with Trump, Green Book is the death rattle of a nostalgia-fetishizing group who’ve long overstayed their welcome and are hell-bent on trashing the place on their way out the door.
The Academy is capable of changing for the better. If the Oscars can evolve from an anti-union scheme to friend of organized labor, it can grow in other ways too. Far too slowly, but surely, the Academy (and Hollywood) is becoming as diverse as the world it operates within. In time, hopefully, the films it nominates will be better representative of that variety. A day may even come when the Boots Rileys and other unorthodox members of the industry have their seat at the table (if they even want one), and every nominee who walks up to accept their award can do so confidently, knowing a true jury of their peers have deemed their performance exceptional and that special moment isn't going to be undercut minutes later by some bullshit.
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