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The Oscars Diversity Misdirection

Rainbow-washing the awards race helps avoid discussion of white-washing casts to please China.
September 9, 2020
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pretty sure this counts as diversity in the new regime but who can say

After best picture wins in the past four years for Parasite, Green Book, The Shape of Water, and Moonlight, to say nothing of 12 Years a Slave’s triumph back in 2014, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is finally—finally!—doing something to ensure that underrepresented groups have a shot at the Oscar for best picture.

Yesterday AMPAS announced new guidelines that would determine whether or not a film would be eligible for best picture at the Academy Awards. To qualify, a film has to check at least two of the following four boxes: “Onscreen Representation, Themes and Narratives,” “Creative Leadership and Project Team,” Industry Access and Opportunities,” and “Audience Development.” Basically, you either need to have onscreen representation of historically marginalized groups—minorities, women, non-cishet individuals, people with disabilities—or make some effort to include them behind the scenes, including via paid internships and other opportunities.

A very smart person I follow on Twitter once sighed during Oscar season that there’s no point in getting all fired up about the Oscars, that it’s just an industry trade show and it makes the rules to showcase what it wants to showcase about itself just as any other industry does. A fancier Clios, in other words. I’ve always tried to keep that in mind while reconciling the various artistic atrocities that take place every year, such as The Shape of Water beating out Dunkirk for best picture. Objectively judging “the best movie” is impossible, behind-the-scenes machinations lead to upsets all the time, and anyone who is familiar with the “Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot” series knows that most voters don’t even bother watching all the movies they’re voting on.

So setting aside the obvious, but pedestrian, complaint here—why can’t they just vote for the best movies, the best performances, the best direction, etc.?—let’s instead ask what the film industry wants this move to do for perceptions of the film industry.

The first thing to consider is that this new hoop to jump through is an obvious boon for the big studios. As Mark Harris, whose book on the Oscar race of movies released in 1967 is a must-read for those interested in understanding how the movie business changed during the 1960s, noted on Twitter, allowing behind-the-scenes efforts to take the place of onscreen representation, is a huge boon for studio filmmakers. If you’re directing a prestige picture for Warner Bros. or Universal, you’ll never have to worry about any of this: someone somewhere will make sure you have the proper number of underrepresented interns. If you’re an indie putting together a movie on a shoestring in the hopes that A24 or Neon will pick you up, well, good luck.

More striking, though, is the potential for the Oscars to serve as a means of, shall we say, rainbow-washing efforts to de-diversify other aspects of the entertainment industry in order to appeal to Chinese audiences. Writing for Axios China, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian recently highlighted a 2017 study suggesting that there was a noticeable “light-skin shift” in movies marketed toward China.

“The study, published in October 2017, examined more than 3,000 films from between 2009 and 2015 and found that films made after 2012 demonstrated an 8% increase in the number of ‘very light-skinned’ actors in starring roles,” she wrote. “The light-skin shift only occurred in film genres that the Chinese government typically permits into the Chinese market, such as action movies and big summer blockbusters.”

These are, of course, the genres that result in the films least likely to earn Oscar nominations.

(Update: Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post and Kyle Smith at National Review also make a similar point in their pieces on this, though they come at it from different angles: it’s unlikely that the changes will have the effect of actually creating much more onscreen diversity of the sort the most vocal activists are clamoring for. /Update.)

It’s quite the racket: de-diversifying films aimed at the (notoriously racist) Chinese market that actually earn big studios money while creating something the big studios can point to so they can say “No, ackshually we love diversity!” all while allowing those same big studios a get-out-of-jail-free card with their cash-intensive behind-the-scenes efforts.

But hey: we’ll never have to live through another #OscarsSoWhite. So it’s all worth it.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association