Can a Boycott Change the Oscars?

Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith are skipping next month’s ceremony thanks to its all-white acting nominees, and the Academy is taking notice.

Spike Lee

Last November, the filmmaker Spike Lee was given an honorary Oscar at the Academy’s annual Governor’s Ball. In his speech, he recalled the early days of his career and riffed on his love of cinema, but he also firmly and powerfully took his industry to task for its lack of opportunities and recognition for people of color. “We need to have a serious discussion about diversity,” he said. “It’s easier to be the president of the United States as a black person than to be head of a studio, or be head of a network.”

On Monday, after the Oscars nominated an all-white slate of actors for the second year running, Lee took things a step further by saying he wouldn’t attend February’s Oscars, where honorary winners usually appear, in protest.

The Oscars are a more than 6,000-member organization, and even after admitting a larger, diverse group of new members last year, its voters remain 93 percent white and 76 percent male. But Lee’s protest hasn’t fallen on deaf ears. Within a day, the Academy’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, responded with a statement saying she would “conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond.” Those might read like hollow words, but such a reaction from the Academy, as the journalist and author Mark Harris noted, is practically unprecedented.

Lee isn’t the only person to protest this year’s nominees—the actress Jada Pinkett Smith also announced she would boycott the ceremony, saying, “We can no longer beg for the love, acknowledgement, or respect of any group.” The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite once again dominated Twitter after the Oscar nominations were announced. But Lee’s protest is harder for the Academy to ignore or shrug off, since his absence will be painfully obvious when the honorary winners are presented at February’s ceremony.

Isaacs, an African American woman who was elected Academy President in 2013, accepted twice as many new members as usual last year to try and shake things up, and Lee praised her efforts in his November speech. “She’s trying to do something that needs to be done,” he said, while urging her to do more. It’s not clear what “dramatic steps” Isaacs will now take, but she referenced her previous efforts in her statement. “The change is not coming as fast as we would like,” she said. “We need to do more, and better, and more quickly.”

This may be a face-saving effort, but since it’d be close to impossible to make Oscar voters less diverse, almost anything Isaacs does will be in a step in the right direction. Still, things can’t simply be laid at the Academy’s door, no matter how many anonymous interviews leak out with voters making incensed tirades about films like Selma. Studio campaigns are another part of the problem. A lot of the acclaimed films with more diverse casts that were passed over this year weren’t seen as traditional “Oscar bait,” which led to sluggish campaigns for their actors that only picked up late in the year.

The boxing drama Creed is technically the seventh Rocky movie—a reboot of the kind that Oscar voters typically ignore. It also happened to be one of the best-made and best-acted films of the year, but Warner Bros. was apparently “cagey” about screening it and pushing it out to voters until late in the game, when it’s harder for a film to get noticed amid a glut of prestige offerings. Straight Outta Compton was a biopic—traditionally something voters love—but about the rap group N.W.A., which one anonymous voter told Entertainment Weekly was part of the reason it was largely ignored.

“Many if not most of the Academy can’t fathom songs like ‘Fuck Tha Police,’” said the voter, identified only as a director. “I know many members who wouldn’t even see the film because it represented a culture that they detest or, more accurately, they assume they detest.” Other critically acclaimed films likeCreed, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, and Sean Baker’s Tangerine might have faced similar struggles, which makes it all the more important for Isaacs to try and recruit a younger, broader-minded voting body for the future.

Whatever its problems, it certainly helps for the Academy to acknowledge its shortcomings openly. Excerpts of honorary-Oscar winners’ speeches are always played during the main ceremony: If Lee holds to his vow and doesn’t appear, producers should play his scathing November denunciations of the industry for the crowd and the millions watching at home. “Not sure if you know this, but the U.S. Census Bureau says by the year 2043, white Americans are going to be the minority in this country,” he said. “People in positions of hiring, you better get smart. Your workforce should reflect what this country looks like.”