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Oscars woke up to 'negligence': 10 new Academy members praise diversity push

Priyanka Chopra, Sanaa Lathan, Phylicia Rashad, Rinko Kikuchi, more reflect on Oscar’s 2017 class

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Clockwise from top left: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images; Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images; Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images; JB Lacroix/WireImage; MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Following two years of sharp criticism and back-to-back ceremonies with an all-white slate of acting nominees, the Academy of Motion Picture of Arts & Sciences has taken some big steps in 2017 toward including more women and people of color in the Oscars’ selection process. Last week, a record 774 new members from 57 countries around the world were asked to join the organization’s ranks. Of that group, 39 percent are women, and if all accept their invitation, the total number of female participants overall will jump from 27 percent to 28 percent; under similar circumstances, the freshman class of 2017 could also see the number of racial minorities in the 8,427-strong institution rise from 11 percent to 13 percent.

As the Academy heads into what could be its most inclusive annual cycle to date, EW chatted with 10 new members about AMPAS’ ongoing push for racial and gender equality: actors Priyanka Chopra, Phylicia Rashad, Rinko Kikuchi, Aldis Hodge, Sanaa Lathan, Terry Crews, Colman Domingo, Fan Bingbing, and Anna Deavere Smith, and Colombian filmmaker Patricia Cardoso — all of whom accepted their invitations. Read on to find out what they feel still needs to change about the Academy, the dangers of Oscar campaigning, how they think AMPAS has evolved in a post-#OscarsSoWhite arena, why Moonlight‘s historic best picture victory signals a changing of the guard, what the future holds for women in the Academy, and the potential impact their fellow invitees will have on 2018 Oscar voting (spoiler alert: Get Out and Wonder Woman should probably be on your early predictions list in multiple categories).

Note: EW reached out to numerous new members of the Academy across multiple professional branches. Many declined to be a part of this story and several others did not respond to our request for comment.

On the Academy’s evolving identity regarding racial and gender inclusion

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PRIYANKA CHOPRA (Baywatch): While the numbers have their own story to tell, I think it’s important to recognize that progress is being made. It’s going to take some time to correct, but continuous efforts always help.

SANAA LATHAN (American Assassin): Clearly the message has been heard, and the Academy is making changes slowly because it’s an institution that has been predominantly male and white for many years. It has to be carefully transitioned into what the new Academy is going to be. It can’t just happen overnight. I applaud them for making these initiatives a priority. The Academy is the ideal in terms of what we look to and what we consider great art and great representation for this industry.

My next movie is American Assassin… it was a huge international bestseller series of books. Irene Kennedy, the woman I play, is written as white in the books. The studio, Lionsgate, hired me. It’s those kinds of decisions that are encouraging because, for years and years and years, it’s been the other way around, with characters of color being whitewashed. I’m seeing the change in my own life, and I’m seeing it around the industry. It’s happening slowly, but I’m a very optimistic person, and I think it will continue to change for the better.

TERRY CREWS (The Expendables franchise): I’ve been seeing a little bit of a backlash, which was expected. People feel like the Academy is being watered down [with this class]. With a change, there are going to be people who are unhappy, people who like things the way they’ve been done. The problem with tradition is that you don’t even know why you’re doing what you’re doing anymore. You’re just doing things for the sake of doing them. When change comes, it starts to highlight a lot of inaccuracies that were there from the beginning… With the phrase “watered down,” it reminds me of when Jackie Robinson entered baseball when they wouldn’t let black players play… When you include everyone in sports, the sport gets better. When you include everyone in filmmaking and storytelling and writing, the creations get better. There’s no way it can get watered down. I just don’t understand that kind of thinking. To me, that’s the old guard. The move the Academy just made is an amazing, wonderful step in the right direction.

FAN BINGBING (X-Men: Days of Future Past): Being selected with so many excellent Chinese filmmakers also makes me feel extremely proud. This indicates that Chinese movies and Chinese filmmakers have won worldwide attention and affirmation. I think these changes and efforts represents an improvement of global film industry, so that we can watch more diversified content in the movies – which is exactly why film art is so unique and charming.

ALDIS HODGE (Straight Outta Compton): The Academy has more power and influence than it really understands. Sometimes it sets the tone for how we’re received, culturally, all over the world. Even if they don’t understand the movies or the language, people pay attention to the Oscars all over the world. It looks like an example to follow when the Academy is saying, Hey look, this is not okay, and we have an entire population that isn’t being represented… The #OscarsSoWhite controversy opened their eyes to what was really going on. It wasn’t a targeted effort against women and people of color, but it was a naïve and neglected effort… When you say “diversity,” the term has been denigrated over the years, because it has been used as a crutch… you get into these executive offices and people say, Oh, we have this project, wait a minute guys, we need diversity, let’s choose a black actor for this, let’s choose a Hispanic actor for this, instead of saying, That’s not diverse, that’s just normal. That’s what makes up America… Diversity is giving people of color another label… that’s giving people of different gender and sexual preferences another label, another box that separates us from the majority.

The Academy woke up to their negligence and said, Look at all these gems we’ve been missing… That’s a systemic issue in the industry. In fact, I read a script the other day and I said no, I can’t do it because it was supposedly addressing police brutality, but the black character was written so very stereotypically. The police were written so sympathetically, where you didn’t feel they were doing anything wrong. Right now, this is a cultural issue where people are going off… I couldn’t even finish the script. I told them no… I couldn’t even take the meeting. We have a responsibility to represent the times well. There are a lot of people who have not experienced the reality that some other cultures have, so they’re going to continue to speak a different way… as an Academy that represents artists and the world, you do have to do the work, and right now the Academy is trying to do the work. So as long as they do the work, we’ll be able to do our work.

RINKO KIKUCHI (Babel): Film teaches us many things and provides us with hope. I hope all of us film lovers will be able to continue to dedicate our love for film and share it with the rest of the world. Sixty years sounds like a long time [since a Japanese actress won an Oscar]. But, at the same time, I think there is a lot more we, as performers from Japan, can contribute to the film industry at large, and I surely feel that way about myself. I truly hope there will be more opportunities for my Japanese counterparts [because of the Academy’s initiatives].

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH (Rachel Getting Married): I’m very happy that the Academy is responding to the [recent] protests. They could have decided to go the other way and be angry or resentful about it. Inside the Academy, there is the same kind of people who helped me in my career… white people, men, and as I’ve found everywhere, hard working people of color who want to make it better. In this moment, with this robust class of 2017, with all of these very talented people having an invitation means it’s a beautiful time. The great thing will be to see if it changes the industry.

On the Academy’s responsibility to gender and racial representation

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COLMAN DOMINGO (Selma): Now I have a platform to make a difference, and what better way than to do it on the inside, because I’ve been doing it on the outside for a long time. It’s not even about just who votes for the pictures. It’s about what films get made. The whole group can have a larger impact on that. It’s not just about people raising their hands up at the end of the year when there aren’t enough nominees of color or women. It has to start from what’s available, what has been made in the studio system. What stories do we believe are worthy? It has to start there. By being a member of the Academy, my thought is, I can make a difference in that way. It’s not just about the voting at the end of the year. It’s about, how do we get these things greenlit in the beginning of the year?

HODGE: If the Academy is going to be the hub of prestige for skills and the fine-tuning of your craft, we need all artists represented, so we need the Oscars to be the leader and the example in that way. They have a responsibility, as does every studio. You don’t just have one particular type of audience watching your work, shows, or films. That’s not to say every single project has to be wildly inclusive, because not every subject matter allows for that. Diversity, at its root, means different, right? Inclusion means including that which is already there. So for me, to include women and include cultures and people of different colors, that’s not diversity because it’s not different. This country is not built on one culture alone. We all make up this industry. If you look at the crews, the crews alone are so intermixed culturally, and these people, the crews, are the blood, sweat, and tears of the set… so when you think about who really contributes to keeping this machine going, you have a massive responsibility to represent these people.

PATRICIA CARDOSO (Real Women Have Curves): They have a responsibility and the power and the willingness to do it. With the incredible work they’ve done last year and this year by inviting so many women and people of color, it’s like a dream come true when a group like this breaks the glass ceiling. I’m happy, but I also feel the responsibility that I have because I have the opportunity to make a change with my vote and to speak up for more films.

PHYLICIA RASHAD (Creed): Anybody who has worked in the industry for more than two years would be aware of what the composition of the Academy was. This year, we usher in a significant change in that order. If we look at the history of motion pictures, we see certain topics that are explored in the light of day today were actually taboo some time ago. There was a picture made with Cary Grant as Cole Porter, Night and Day, and when you look at that motion picture, then you look at the motion picture Kevin Kline did as Cole Porter, De-Lovely, you see a marked difference in content in terms of the way his life and sexual orientation were dealt with. It was investigated in a more open way in the latter film than in the earlier one. This is happening now with Moonlight; it is a beautiful, human, poignant film, and I’d like to think it received the award for those reasons.

KIKUCHI: It’s an honor and I’m very happy to receive the invitation. To be a member of the Academy as an Asian and Japanese actress and being able to cast my vote is truly a privilege. Because the Academy stands in the forefront of the film industry in the world, I think it always needs to be innovative and progressive at the same time.

BINGBING: Film, as the seventh art, should be borderless. The creator and the intention of creation both need to embrace diversity. I hope the film society can speak out for films and filmmakers who are more diversified, and encourage those fresh and energetic filmmakers to produce great films.

What the Academy can change

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LATHAN: Exposure and success beget success, so the fact that we’re seeing that there is something called black excellence in the arts [is vital], and we saw this highlighted last year at the Oscars. That encourages more of the same in terms of creating roles, whether that’s roles in movies made by white filmmakers or otherwise… ultimately it’s going to come down to our industry, the studios being more inclusive, and we need more people demanding that we have diverse films. We also need to hire filmmakers of different races and demand that there are a certain number of women hired and a certain number of African-American people who are hired, etc. The Academy will lead the charge in terms of recognizing that. Hopefully people like me — and the fact that they’ve included a more diverse 2017 class — we will be able to foster these changes within the industry because we are diverse. Because the Academy is including a wide range of people, all voices are going to be heard, and hopefully, that will create change.

CARDOSO: Those statistics that so many Academy members were white and male, that has to change. There are a lot of underground movies that can have more exposure in the Academy, too. Oscar campaigns involve so much money, and it’s incredible to think there are some films that fall through the cracks because they don’t have that power [the studios have]. Changing that would be like changing the campaigns for president! I don’t think that can change [as soon]. But, the Academy is only around 8,000 people, so [the new class] might be open to seeing more films from different venues.

Even for me, because I’ve been a member of the Directors Guild of America for 15 years and I get the screeners, some [distributors of small movies] don’t have the resources to pay for screeners. If you don’t pay for screeners and you’re not in theaters, how do we see those films? The new streaming technology I’ve seen in the last couple of years for DGA consideration [is the right step forward]. Expanding that could make the process much more democratic. Sending a link isn’t as expensive as sending a DVD!

CHOPRA: It’s interesting that though [past Indian] winners were Indian, it was for their work in international films — largely about India, but not made by India. For a global community like India to be represented on a larger scale, I think it will have to move beyond a single award for all foreign language films. It is very rare to see foreign language films represented in the other categories. The class of 2017 does have a very diverse collection, including a few from my country, and one hopes that we all work together to push the larger picture. I’d like to see more opportunities for foreign films to be represented at the Oscars. If the Oscars are trying to diversify and touch the globe, which the Academy seems to be doing with this new class, I hope to help change the way foreign language films are received and considered.

What movies could receive their Oscar votes next year

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SMITH: If Get Out is going to be in this year, that’s great. To me, part of the achievement of Get Out is its blend of absolute horror and hilarity. It seems to be a realistic portrayal of what, over the years, I’ve understood to be a representation of the black man’s nightmare… and at the same time, there’s humor. That’s amazing to me. What I would love to see is for somebody to say and portray — in such an exciting and original way — a black woman’s nightmare, because it’s different. I’ve never see anything show me the anxiety and the trauma at a serious level about the true trauma black men suffer, and to put that historically and to put that together with humor is a victory. The performances are incredible. It’s glorious.

DOMINGO: Get Out, absolutely. It’s groundbreaking in so many ways, both in terms of its message and artistically. Jordan Peele invented another genre. He’s onto something, and [his perspective] is something we’ve needed more of. I’m proud that a studio took a chance to fund a story like his. We do have an opportunity to raise a film like this — and other films that are daring, bold, and ambitious with a singular point of view — into the American consciousness. The more we do that, the more variety of storytelling we will have.

CHOPRA: I think it’s going to be a great year for women. [I support] Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled and of course Wonder Woman. Also Get Out! I’m also really looking forward to Blade Runner 2049.

CARDOSO: Now that I’m a member of the Academy, I hope I can push the documentary branch to see a film called Señorita María, la falda de la montaña. It’s a very small movie, and it’s about a peasant who is transgender, and she is incredible. She lives in the Andes, two hours away from the world, and the filmmaker has done an incredible job [highlighting her life].

RASHAD: You need to see Split! My goodness! That’s something that’s on my radar. James McAvoy’s performance is outstanding. The choices he made… and he didn’t make them by himself because there’s the work of the director [M. Night Shyamalan], too. It had me on the edge of my seat, not just James’ performance, but also the pacing and the movement of the film; it was extraordinary. We see films about people with post-traumatic stress disorder or multiple personalities often, but this one was handled in a very specific way that was frightening.

CREWS: Gal Gadot gives one of the best performances I’ve seen this year in Wonder Woman. She blew it up. A lot of people are complaining about it being her first big thing, but they don’t complain when a white guy does the same thing. It’s never an issue if a white man does one great job and now he’s a star for the rest of his life. Why can’t the same thing happen for Gal? When I look at Wonder Woman, I’ve never seen anything like it. It sent goose bumps down my spine. I got choked up in the theater because I felt like, This is possible now, whereas before it actually was not possible; Wonder Woman broke a paradigm. When you actually see it break, it’s like, Oh sh–!

LATHAN: I really loved Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins did an amazing job on that. It’s so empowering. I went with my mother and cousins, and the whole evening we were doing our Wonder Woman poses! It was so inspiring! It hit me on more than an entertainment level. It hit me on a deeply empowering and uplifting level. That’s exciting for me to know that little boys and little girls are going to see that in their consciousness as they grow up.

Also, Get Out, 100 percent. I love that it combines comedy and horror, but it’s dealing with some deep racial issues that we don’t talk about in this country. It was delivered in such a perfect way, in that black as well as white audiences can totally enjoy it and digest it and still get the message. Those performances were fantastic, especially the performance of Daniel Kaluuya. He should be in the Best Actor race.

The hope for broadening Academy tastes

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CHOPRA: At the end of the day, the Academy has always recognized stories… films with meaning connect with audiences. Powerful performances by actors and stars have and will continue to be a driving force in a film’s popularity, even at the Oscars. With regards to the disconnect between the choices of the audience and the Academy, it’s very subjective. The two coincide more often than not, but there will always be varying opinions; and that is healthy, in my opinion. It pushes us all to do better.

CREWS: The Academy isn’t going to solve all of our problems. It’s a much deeper issue… when you look at Old Hollywood, Charlie Chaplin, based on his career, he would not be a member of the Academy in today’s environment. It’s been a very pretentious Academy, in that comedic performances aren’t given as much weight. To me, Eddie Murphy’s performance in The Nutty Professor was probably the most brilliant performance I’ve seen, and it got no love from the Academy.

It has to change… you have to question whether comedy has affected you just as deep as a drama has. It’s wild because the Academy itself has always felt comedians were great enough to host the Oscars, but not great enough to be voted in. Comedic performances are just as needed and just as viable as dramatic ones. I’d say comedy is actually harder than drama; everyone can agree on what’s dramatic, but no one can agree on what’s funny. Comedy is subjective, and you have to be more vulnerable to do comedy than you do to be a dramatic actor. Hopefully, we can shed light and give more respect to a lot of the great comedic performances through the years, because there have been things the Wayans’ have done that have changed the way everyone sees life itself. You can tell the truth in a joke, but if you tell people the truth right up, no one will hear it.

LATHAN: There are trends in terms of what the Academy considers to be Oscar-worthy. Great art is great art no matter what the genre is. I would love to see comedies as nominees or thrillers as nominees, or even something like Wonder Woman. That’s a genre we haven’t really seen at the Academy Awards. It’s almost like a stereotype, the type of movie that’s typically awarded. I would like to see an expansion.

RASHAD: Art should be embraced and should be viewed on its merit as art… Moonlight was such a human film and the writing was so true to human experience. This particular human experience was very difficult and not easy to live, and probably not easy for [Tarell Alvin McCraney] to write about, either. I’m always looking to see what’s happening on the greater scales of our evolution as thinkers, and I’m so happy that at this time [we’re not seeing material like] we did at another time, when Cole Porter’s life was treated like a lab experiment [in 1946’s Night and Day]. It’s so much richer for us to explore the truth of humanity and the truth of human behavior than it is to put tinsel on it.

How the new class will impact voting and inclusivity initiatives

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CREWS: The Academy is supposed to be representative of the world. It’s supposed to be worldwide entertainment. It’s wild because some people feel that only their stories are viable, and that’s shocking. Look at a movie like Hidden Figures. Here you have these mathematicians who wouldn’t let a woman into the circle because she was African-American, and even more so because she was a woman, yet she held the key. You have to include everyone to come up with the best solution… When you think of things in terms of groupthink, there are rules and ways to say, Yes, this is the way things should be, but everything breaks down on an individual level. It takes that executive, those people working on sets, actors, actresses, craftsmen, whose one little move and one little decision to say Let’s tell this woman’s story, let’s tell this Indian story, this African story, and all of a sudden things start to change. That starts with one person. Everything has to go down to the individual level for these big giant groups [like the Academy] to change. What feels good to me is that now they’ve included over 700 new individuals to this decision-making process.

DOMINGO: For me, it will never just be about voting for the Academy Awards. It’s about asking how can I be a part of the conversations, panels, presentations, and championing representation. Those are the immediate steps. It’s not only being a part of the actors’ branch but also using my voice as a writer, as a director, as a creative. It’s looking at the macro in broad strokes.

CARDOSO: [The Academy] asks you what committees you’d like to sign up for, and if you’re familiar with the new initiatives to mentor high school students from underrepresented communities. I already signed up for it! I worked for Sundance many years ago and I was in charge of the Latin American program, and I see the seeds that were planted with the program that I launched back in the ’90s, they are blooming now. All the filmmakers we supported at that time were unknown, like Alfonso Cuaron; they all benefit from having had that opportunity that Sundance gave them 20 years ago. Now there’s the opportunity for the Academy to do that, too.

The changing landscape for women in the Academy and beyond

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CHOPRA: Yes, [the industry is expanding]. In fact, in addition to what the Academy is doing, a film like Wonder Woman — helmed by an Israeli actor, [with a] female director and an overall women-centric theme — is proving that the audience is not restricted by gender or race. At the end of the day, quality content is what matters. Having said that, we still have a long way to go to see real parity, but every step counts.

RASHAD: The future is right there in front of your face. Women have been doing marvelous things behind the camera, on camera for sure, but behind the camera, too. I’m very interested in seeing Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle In Time. I can’t wait for that. But, there are a lot of female directors in television – a lot more. So, it’s very interesting to see the doors are open to all of us [beyond film], and I surely don’t think we should throw the men out. I like the men. [Laughs]. Let the women in, but don’t throw the men out!

LATHAN: I’ve had some of my most satisfying roles created by and written by women. Gina Prince-Bythewood has been so instrumental in my career. She’s a black woman in the Academy. It’s inspiring to see this, finally. It’s about time, guys! It feels like for whatever reason, Hollywood is the last form that is waking up, and it’s being forced to wake up because people are not standing for it. We’re not going to movies that are not being representative of the world that we live in. Now that it’s finally impacting those box office numbers, people are listening.