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Exclusive: First Black Academy President Talks One-on-One on #OscarsSoWhite

Exclusive: First Black Academy President Talks One-on-One on #OscarsSoWhite

By now everybody has heard about the great Oscar controversy of 2016. For a second straight year the organization that produces the Oscars – the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, failed to include any talent of color in its top categories, (save for Alejandro González Iñárritu, who received a Best Director nomination for The Revenant).  I was at the Academy on the morning when the nominations were announced, and the frustration was palpable.  “Here we go again,” announced one of the five or six Black journalists in the packed room as he left to file his story. Another one of my Black colleagues merely rolled her eyes as we made our way to the buffet breakfast set up in the downstairs lobby. As we gathered to eat, each of us bore the weary expression of having witnessed this scenario too many times before.

However, this time, the Academy wasn’t going to get away with its shenanigans, only to retreat behind its venerable reputation until the dust settled. Director Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett Smith were the first to fire off their frustrations via social media and suggested tactics including boycotting the event all together. They were quickly joined by other A-list talent like George Clooney, Idris Elba and Lupita Nyong’o, who expressed alarm at the Academy’s direction. Just this week, outsized talents Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler announced that they too will play hooky from Hollywood, instead heading to Flint Mich., attending a benefit for those impacted by the town’s lead-contamination crisis.

To stem the growing outcry, the Academy immediately issued a statement that announced changes to their long held standards for who is eligible to vote. They also reaffirmed their commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Much of the weight of the 2016 Oscars controversy has fallen squarely on Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a former public relations executive, who in 2013 made history as the first Black and only the third woman to serve as president over the Academy in its 88-year history. Well-respected throughout the industry for her due diligence and practical approach to business, Boone Isaacs has spent nearly 40 years executing campaigns for studios like Columbia, Paramount and New Line Cinema. Since being elected as president of the Academy, she has been steadfast in supporting policies and initiatives to make the organization more diverse and inclusive.

In the days leading up to this year’s Oscars, she sat down with AAFCA co-founder and president, Gil Robertson for an exclusive one-on-one interview on #OscarsSoWhite, the industry reaction (so far) to the Academy’s diversity plan and her hope for the filmmaking future.

Robertson: Please tell us about your position at the Academy and the role you play.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs: “I am currently the president of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences and I am in the middle of my third term and each term is a year, so it’s been two-and-a-half years. I could go on for a maximum of 4 years, so I will go and see if I get elected for my fourth term. I am president, which means that I am president of the Board of Governors. There are 51 Governors, representing 17 branches that are elected by members to govern and guide the Academy. Each branch governs their branch, meaning that they set the criteria for both membership and the recognition of talent, which of course, includes the Oscars.”

Robertson: Since you’ve been in office, what types of initiatives have you pushed for?

CBI: “Well overall it’s been more member inclusion, as well really as pushing out the boundaries of the organization to be more inclusive for different voices both domestically and internationally. The interest in film is probably at an all-time high. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling over the last two-and-a-half years around the globe and the excitement about film and the Academy since we represent film is really quite remarkable and while there have been filmmakers from many different countries and continents, and we have recognized them through our last 88 years, I feel that it’s important as an organization to really embrace the different voices both internationally, as well as domestically, in a way that the Academy will benefit, as well as the industry as a whole.”

Robertson:  What was your first reaction after you learned of this year’s Oscar nominations? (This response you’ll want to watch.  Cue the video.)

Robertson: How do we leverage the current controversy as an opportunity for change?

CBI: “We hope that the current issues will encourage more of our members to get involved and be a part of our internal organization’s conversation to move this discussion further. And not just talk, which is another reason why we wanted to get out to the public and let people know that we have already been involved in thinking about how to move this needle forward with some action, because that is what people want to see. Now I’ve seen this before, but I do feel a collective consciousness to get this done. Now I’ve seen this before and I know that every 10 years we kind of get that door open. But I do feel that this time that door is not going to close. Everybody is on board – the studios, the talent agencies, the Unions and the Guilds, know that this is the right thing to do and that it is time to do something to reach the goal of being a more diverse and inclusive industry.”

Robertson: What are the goals of the Academy’s new A2020 plan?

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CBI: “The leadership of the Academy has been actively involved in diversifying our membership for a number of years even prior to my ascension to president. Since my presidency, however, we have really kick started our efforts, certainly after last year, and now we are going for absolute results. This is why we were able to voice some of the initiatives that we had been discussing so quickly after the nominations. We were working on these plans quite a bit in detail, but we felt the need to get that information out there. The main objective with regards to membership is an initiative that we term A2020.  By the year 2020 we want diversification of women, people of color, national origin, and sexual preference, disability all across the board to be recognized because of their value to the business of motion pictures.”

Robertson: Has there been any backlash or resistance?

CBI: “Yes, to be honest, there has.  Some of that, my belief is, because there is not quite an understanding of some of these rules.  People are believing they will lose their membership. They are not. We want a membership that is very active.  If it’s music, TV, or film, people come to Hollywood with their dream, and their dream might be realized, but not for length of time.  Members who have left the industry, that’s what we’re addressing.  Some press reports seem to indicate that we are throwing people out, which we’re not. We do want professionals that understand the art form in its entirety to be part of our voting process.”

Robertson: We know what Hollywood needs to do to in order be more reflective of the world we live in, but what can the African American community do to help the Academy in its efforts to acknowledge more diverse talent? 

Gil Robertson IV is an award-winning journalist, bestselling author and president of the African-American Film Critics Association. and the AAFCA are partnering to push the conversation for film and television diversity forward.

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