9 new Academy members speak on 'storming the gates' of Oscar with diversity revolution
New Academy members speak up for representation
Long considered to be predominantly white, male-centric bastion for traditional tastes in the film industry, the face of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is evolving to incorporate a wide range of perspectives among its voting ranks in the shadow of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. The infamous hashtag blew a hole in the side of the prestigious film organization, and the Academy is striving to patch up decades' worth of under-representation in its membership in recent years. On top of annual growth in terms of gender and racial inclusion since 2015, the Academy invited a record 928 new members to join this year, and EW spoke to nine of them — from Melissa Etheridge and George Lopez to Amber Tamblyn and Bel Powley — about the kick the Academy needed to evolve into the future and what still needs to be fixed along the way.
Melissa Etheridge - Music Branch
Though Etheridge won her first Oscar back in 2007 for writing the original tune “I Need to Wake Up” for An Inconvenient Truth, the LGBT icon claims the Academy’s music branch denied her membership twice in subsequent years (the Academy did not provide EW with clarification on Etheridge's statement). “You can see the problem: It is a very white, male Academy,” she tells EW. “You see the incredible moments of the last year, with the #MeToo movement shaking up Hollywood, and I imagine that rattled the doors of the music branch. I check two boxes: being a lesbian and a woman. When I saw the big press release where they were touting how many women, people of color, and LGBT people they invited, I thought, good on them for realizing it’s time to catch up to the 21st century… it shows the Academy had to look deeply to realize it doesn’t make sense anymore. The fear of the other has to go away, from our presidential situation… everything comes down to this fear of the other. This is how you get through it.”
Justin Simien - Directors Branch
Dear White People helmer Justin Simien feels there’s “urgency among audiences and storytellers to comprehend the assault on all our civil liberties coming from white supremacists who, once again, are waging a cultural war they will lose,” which ultimately “creates an appetite for change that seems to be encouraging the kind of stories that inspired me to be a filmmaker in the first place.” Part of that shift, he observes, is because the Academy is taking up “the challenge” of shaping “the stories our culture tells itself in the future” by inviting a diverse roster this year. “Women and people of color don’t have the same blind spots as the minority of white straight men that currently dominate American storytelling. The more diverse the academy is, the greater variety of stories and storytellers that will be seen and promoted,” he notes, adding that Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting are two films he can see himself voting for at the end of the year. “I want more Moonlight moments on that stage. A sudden blast of light on all kinds of stories traditionally kept in the shadows… I don’t think the job of the Academy is to merely reflect the box office. There are other awards shows for that. Its power is that it can expand the box office to help audiences recognize the very best of our industry in its myriad forms even when they might have missed it at first.”
George Lopez - Actors Branch
An entertainment pioneer for the Latino community, George Lopez is perhaps best known for his work in comedy — a genre he feels doesn't get the Academy attention it deserves. "They should look at increasing the category [nominations]," he says. "You shouldn’t lose an Academy Award on an incredible piece of work because of a category… I presented the first Emmy for reality TV… because that’s what TV is now. Would you want Sex and the City to lose to The Amazing Race because [they were in the same category] of Best TV Show? No. They had their own categories so The Sopranos wasn’t beat by Big Brother." When it comes to gender and racial diversity, however, Lopez says "change starts with writers, casting, and producing. The Academy [only functions] as a tree once it’s bloomed. You have to go down to the seed and make sure that when the tree’s growing, every branch is inclusive of what our society looks like. This influx of new eyes… can get everybody to see a broader scope." Still, he's hoping to use his powers for real change down the line: "I’m trying to get La Bamba re-looked-at for best picture," he jokes. "I’ll get right on it."
Regina Hall - Actors Branch
Regina Hall, who's been the comedic soul of films like Girls Trip and Scary Movie, tells EW she's overwhelmed by the Academy's decision to include her after decades' worth of work, mainly because, at the start of her career, the group didn't seem "within the realm of possibility" for a young black actress. "[These changes] have a message that’s broader than people involved in entertainment: Diversity one place is diversity every place," she explains, adding that she hopes the Academy's initiatives will inspire others like her. "Seeing varying images and material in terms of the types of nominees and films being [nominated]. All these things are so important… At a time right now where there’s a lot of divisiveness in our country, and yet at the same time a lot of cohesiveness. I hope my input will expand [Academy perspectives] where there might not have been much thought before… I hope that lands in a place that’s impactful for the next generation." Joining the Academy is a huge deal for Hall, but what's the best perk of all? "I don’t have to go over and visit my friends to watch their screeners anymore," she says with a laugh. "I get my own pile!"
Diane Kruger - Actors Branch
Hailing from Germany (but having cut her teeth in the realm of French cinema), Inglourious Basterds and In the Fade actress Diane Kruger worried her accent would cost her roles in Hollywood at the start of her career. "I’ve had films that were nominated for Academy Awards for best foreign film and I wasn’t invited, all the way back to 2005. It seems that they certainly have made an effort to include international filmmakers and talents, but I also look at the diversity of what’s being cast. It is more on people’s minds and it’s about time, you know?" she says, praising AMPAS steadily increasing its pool of international invitees in recent years. "For myself, things that I’ve wanted to make or be part of, the doors have opened and it’s easier to get female story lines out, but it remains a struggle. There’s a consciousness from the people who get to pick who’s an Academy Award-winner or nominee that there needs to be more diverse voices making those decisions... It’s changing so rapidly, personally I think they’re catching up rather than setting an example." Still, she champions the Academy’s decision to invite so many women into the fold, and that’s who she’ll have her gaze trained upon when it comes time to use her vote. “Often those films are being judged and recognized by men, and often white men. I’m interested in female protagonists, stories that concern me as a woman. I don’t want to be exclusory to men, but I think there are not enough films that have a female point of view that’s accurate to what happens around the women I know and stories I want to tell or stories I want to see in a movie theater. I’m definitely going to be watching out for those… I’m going to be looking out for films that aren’t in English with talent that isn’t necessarily American. [I hope] they get a bigger platform… The language of cinema is so universal, but I think we don’t see enough of that in the U.S. As those barriers break down, I want to learn more about different cultures.”
Bel Powley - Actors Branch
The Diary of a Teenage Girl breakout Bel Powley is a vigorous champion for gender and racial visibility on screen, but she has hope for the Academy’s future for its commitment to injecting the air of youth into its older votership. “We’re the people at the forefront of this fight… the generation after us is looking up to us. The importance is about more women, more people of color, and also more young people,” she says. “I think everyone has more of a finger on the pulse than old white men. If you’re an old white man, you’ve never had to have your finger on the pulse because everything is just given to you on a plate your whole life! It’s up to us as a younger generation —and obviously non-white people and non-male people — to start representing the amount of women and multi-cultural and people of color there actually are in the world.” She predicts that with more diversity in terms of who’s voting on the awards, “white- and male-centric” stories won’t be the norm for much longer. “We need to tell more stories about women, more stories about different cultures that we don’t usually explore so… new audiences can be affected by that piece of art rather than just your average, middle-class, privileged white person… I still like to think I’m fair and I’m not going to discriminate against films that have men in them if they’re really good! But, my focus at the moment is geared towards stories that aren’t told as much, and those are stories about women and stories about people of color.”
Amber Tamblyn - Actors Branch
Amber Tamblyn is no stranger to the Academy, having grown up accompaning her actor father Russ Tamblyn to film screenings at the Academy theater, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants actress tells EW.
"To me, the Academy always seemed like a place for men only like my father and maybe the occasional lucky woman. I did not see myself represented in their membership in attendance, let alone on the screen playing the films in front of me," she said.
But times are changing, and Tamblyn, 35, who has been a vocal supporter of the Time's Up Campaign and equality in Hollywood, said she hopes that she, along with the other new members, can push progress forward. She added that she was proud the Academy took "such huge steps to be an active part of the change we not only want, but need." —Piya Sinha-Roy
Angela Robinson - Directors Branch
As soon as she received her invitation, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women director Angela Robinson felt "a responsibility to serve" others like her. "I feel like at least 90 percent of every line of dialogue from every narrative image you’ve seen since the beginning of film has been through the brain, eyes, and mouths of white men — and a narrow segment of white men… it’s really formed how we as women think about ourselves, how we think about race and culture… it’s imperative that those voices become more diverse,” she says. "Growing up, institutions like this have not been inclusive of me, so I never really aspired to be in them because I didn’t think that was somewhere Hollywood was going to move. I’m excited now, as I’ve been inducted in the Academy during a moment of disruption, a moment of re-examining the Hollywood power dynamics.” She goes on to proclaim herself an “advocate for different perspectives and points of view, for queer people or people of color or women or any sort of othered narratives,” especially when it comes to “storming the gates” of an institution like the Academy. “The more people who are at the table, the more people in the room, the more exciting the artistic and cultural conversation is going to be. That will be reflected in what kind of films are considered and honored [by the Academy]. I also feel like there’s a one-year reaction, that’s oh no, we’re going to do it once and then it flies back… so I also feel like part of my role as an activist as well as an artist is to not have the quick, PR fix… but to work towards more long-term change. So that is also something that I’m looking to the Academy for: not just a response to the particular fervor of this moment, but to organically shift the perspective and makeup to be more reflective of our world and more reflective of different viewpoints for the long-term."
Kelly Fremon Craig - Writers Branch
By introducing the Hailee Steinfeld-starring teen comedy Edge of Seventeen into the world, director-writer Kelly Fremon Craig expanded the narrative for young women in cinema in her own right. And she hopes the Academy’s strides will set an example all the same. “I’m also thrilled and excited to represent the future of that community, one that more accurately reflects the world we live in. I think part of why this is so important is that this push [send the message] to women and people of color that their stories have value, that their perspectives are meaningful, and that we want to hear them. There’s something about when the most prestigious institution in the entertainment industry honors and embraces diversity, it sort of has this ripple effect in that community because it starts at the top,” she explains. “Even just a couple of years ago when I made Edge of Seventeen, it was a different environment. There was this unconsciously accepted notion that hiring a female filmmaker meant taking a risk and sticking your neck out, and it feels like that’s begun to change, in part because of the conversation but also because of pushes like the one the Academy is making. The people in charge have started to discover that hiring someone with a different perspective than the one we’ve heard from for decades is not only intelligent, it’s lucrative. People will buy tickets… It’s strange how long this has been a conversation and a problem, and also how quickly all of a sudden it has come to a head that these things are being addressed rapidly. I just hope it holds on, and that’s why I think this particular push by the Academy is such an important one.”