The Coming Backlash to the Oscars’ Diversity Mandate

Director Spike Lee embraces presenter Samuel L. Jackson as he wins his first Oscar, February 24, 2019.
(Mike Blake/Reuters)

Far from appeasing the hashtag activists, the Oscars have merely announced that the quota wars have begun.

It’s easy to make fun of the Oscars’ new set of diversity requirements: Are we going to have to watch Lieutenant Colonel Anne Hathaway tossing grenades at Jerry in the next WWI movie? In the media, the initial response has been to gush praise for this “landmark,” “watershed” moment in which the Academy Awards have mandated hiring quotas for any film that wishes to be eligible for Best Picture (but not any of the other awards).

In about ten seconds, I predict, the Left is going to be furious. “We’ve been had,” they’ll surely scream. Let’s look at the details.

In order to qualify for Best Picture consideration, films will have to meet two out of four specified criteria. The first is the showiest but also the silliest, calling for diversity in casting and themes; it’s unworkable if you’re starting, as do a great many Oscar contenders, with an established historical record. You can’t pretend that Ford v. Ferrari or The Irishman was about minorities or women or gay liberation or handicapped people. Most producers of top-quality films will simply laugh off that top-line requirement and try to hit two of the other three. Which won’t be that hard.

Standard B requires compliance with one of three options. One is that 30 percent of your entire crew be female or minorities or handicapped. That might be a tall order, what with all the beefy union guys on a set doing physical labor such as moving lights and driving trucks. Another option is to have six mid-level jobs, such as script supervisor, go to racial or ethnic minorities. That sounds a little easier to handle, but the third option is really easy: One department head has to be a minority, and two have to be minorities or women or what the Academy terms “LGBTQ+.” There can be overlap. These departments include casting directors, makeup designers, hairstylists, and costumers. Lots of these jobs, maybe even most of them, are already held by gay men or women, so really the requirement is merely that one of these people also be a racial or ethnic minority. If just one of your department heads is Asian or Latino, you’re covered. How hard can that be to comply with? You could hire zero black folks and you’d still get the nod. I can already hear Nikole Hannah-Jones’s teeth grinding: “Asian? Who said anything about Asian? Are Asian Americans subject to systemic racism in this country?” As for LGBTQ+ people, well, gays may be underrepresented in the National Hockey League, but not in Hollywood.

Standards C and D are even easier to meet than Standard B. One of the C standards, for instance, is: “The film’s distribution or financing company has paid apprenticeships or internships that are from the following underrepresented groups.” Internships for women or minorities? The major studios already have lots of those, so no problem. As for exterior film-financing companies, if they’ve got the millions to pay for an Oscar-caliber production, they can easily afford a few thousand for an internship or two. Not difficult. A mini-major or independent studio can qualify if it has as few as two ongoing internships, one for women and one for minorities, in any department from publicity to production. Meet that requirement, and every film your company releases meets Standard C. Again, not a problem.

Standard D says “multiple” in-house senior executives in marketing, distribution, and publicity departments must be members of underrepresented groups, which is defined as including both gays and women. The publicity departments are already heavily staffed by gays and women; I wouldn’t be surprised if gays and women compose an outright majority of publicity staff. So the very low hurdle there is that an unspecified number of them must be “individuals from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups” — so, two Asian Americans? Or one Latino and one executive of Middle Eastern descent? It probably won’t be that challenging to meet this requirement either. Los Angeles is already a pretty diverse place.

Five years ago, the Academy became obsessed with diversity at the Oscars after someone launched the social-media hashtag “#OscarsSoWhite,” but after the ballyhoo of this week’s announcement dies down, detractors are bound to claim that the Academy’s new standards are so minimal that nobody has to change the way they do anything. Still, the Academy will no longer be able to maintain, as it has for 92 years, that merit is its only consideration in handing out awards. So, far from appeasing the hashtag activists, the Oscars have merely announced that the quota wars have begun.