The Oscars' New Diversity Initiative Is A Great Step Forward. Here's Why It Could Never Happen Here.

The Oscars' new diversity initiative is huge step forward. And it leaves Australia even further behind.

What were you doing on Tuesday night? Well over in the US, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made history when they announced films will have to meet a certain set of criteria before being eligible to win a Best Picture Oscar. 

Taking effect from 2024, the initiative sets out that a movie needs to satisfy at least two of four criteria to be eligible for a Best Picture nomination. The guidelines are a lot to take in, but the main goal is about ensuring a movie like La La Land is never nominated for Best Picture again. (What? I'm joking! Kind of.) 

The new rules essentially require that movies nominated for Best Picture can't be made exclusively by men who are white, straight and able-bodied: a demographic that's been over-represented in Hollywood (and elsewhere) for a very long time. By ensuring that movies aren't eligible for the top prize without getting under-represented groups either on-screen and behind the camera, the academy is making a powerful statement about what constitutes excellent filmmaking. Those under-represented groups include women, people of colour, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQIA+ community. 

In rolling out the changes, the academy is taking a small step towards correcting a long-standing and entrenched power imbalance in the industry.

The change is a long time coming. Five years ago, April Reign was watching TV when an all-white slate of nominees were announced ahead of the 2015 Oscars. Taking her frustration to Twitter, the famous #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was born. But it wasn't until 2016 that the hashtag became a movement. Another list of all-white nominees meant cinematic luminary Spike Lee refused to attend the event in 2016, with host Chris Rock even riffing on the movement at the Oscars themselves. As Reign says, "one year is a fluke, two years is a pattern". 

The numbers check out. A 2016 study looking at inequity in popular cinema from 2007-2015 noted that "Hollywood is the cultural epicenter of exclusionary hiring practices when it comes to people of color and women". The research found that most film directors are men (92%) and the biggest movies overwhelmingly feature white leads (86%). 

"It's a start," Reign said on Twitter in response to the new rules. "And something that could have been implemented years ago." It is just a start. As Kyle Buchanan writes in the New York Times, the academy's guidelines are actually pretty modest; accommodating most of the category's most recent winners anyway. 

But could we ever see an initiative like this happening in Australia? Not just in film, but for literally any industry? 

In Australia, we often look to the US with a self-satisfied shrug. The country's election of a racist caricature of a president back in 2016 gave us even more reason to dunk on the US as a country with 'race problems' while ensuring our own violent record as a country borne of and steeped in racism remains hidden from view. 

Of course, racism is endemic to the US. But here's the difference between us and them: in the US, the existence of racism is broadly acknowledged. They recognise that it's a problem. And it's that basic recognition that allows for initiatives like this one; programs that aim to correct a power imbalance that has existed for centuries.

I don't need to scour the internet to know that the Academy's initative won't be well-received in Australia. Our tired old mediascape has little to contribute to these conversations other than claims of 'reverse racism' or the idea that talking about race is in itself racism.

And because so many Aussies struggle with even understanding what racism actually is, let alone acknowledging it as a problem, we're hardly going to understand why initiatives like these are so necessary.

That's why non-white actors find more success in the US than they do here. Asian-Australian actress Charlotte Nicdao, for example, speaks of the "push for diversity on American screens" and admits she "found more success in Australia when auditioning for American produced shows". If we're so much more evolved than the US, why are non-white actors too much for our country to handle? 

Obviously, The Academy's initative isn't a cure-all. A small step in a very elite industry isn't going to change the world. But it's definitely a step forward. Any refusal to acknowledge that will only set us back.

This article has been edited for clarity.


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