THE ACADEMY FLUNKS OUT

The dominant trend in modern American culture is identity politics: the obsession over one’s skin color, genitalia, or sexual orientation, and the belief that those immutable characteristics somehow determine one’s values and attitudes. 

One might expect Hollywood to defy that trend. After all, the entertainment industry encourages individual creativity and personal liberation. We know this to be true because every year, when Hollywood’s luminaries gather for the Oscar presentations, they tell us so.

In fact, Hollywood has always been more cowardly and conformist than confrontational. It will produce a Mulan but it will never again produce a Manchurian Candidate – at least not as long as the Chinese Communist Party controls the hugely lucrative Chinese market.

The latest affirmation of Hollywood’s conformity is the adoption by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of so-called “Inclusion Standards.” The Standards are lengthy and incredibly convoluted. But it pays to take the time to examine them because their very complexity reveals much about the politically correct bean-counting mindset impelling their creation.        

Beginning with the 2024 Oscars, consideration for the Best Picture award will require meeting two out of four Standards. The first, Standard A, is for “On-Screen Representation, Themes and Narratives.” There are three ways to meet Standard A.

First, the film may meet Standard A by including a lead actor or “significant supporting actors” from at least one of seven “underrepresented racial or ethnic” groups. These groups are: Asian, Hispanic/Latinx, Black/African American, Indigenous/Native American/Alaskan Native, Middle Eastern/North African, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, or “Other.” (This last category appears to have been included just in case the authors inadvertently left anyone out.)  These seven groups reappear in the Standards, so, for convenience, they will be referred to just as the “Seven.”

Second, the film may meet Standard A by featuring at least 30% of its secondary and minor roles from at least two out of four other “underrepresented groups.” Now these “underrepresented groups” comprise a list different from and broader than the Seven. They include: women, racial or ethnic groups, LGBTQ+, or people with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing. You may note that the one of the subcategories — “racial or ethnic groups” – subsumes all of the Seven.  For convenience, and in recognition of its greater breadth, this list will be referred to as the “Big Four.”

Third and finally, the film may meet Standard A by containing a storyline, theme, or narrative “centered” on one or more of the Big Four.

We are now finished with Standard A. Recall that there are four Standards, and a film must meet two of them.  We now move on to Standard B: “Creative Leadership and Project Team.”  To satisfy Standard B, the film must meet one of three criteria.

First, at least two of the following creative positions must be occupied by members of the Big Four: Casting Director, Cinematographer, Composer, Costume Designer, Director, Editor, Hairstylist, Makeup Artist, Producer, Production Designer, Set Decorator, Sound, VFX Supervisor, and Writer.

Alternatively, a film may satisfy this first criterion of Standard B if at least one of those aforementioned positions is occupied by a member of the Seven.

To satisfy the second criterion of Standard B, at least six of the crew/team and technical positions must be occupied by a member of the Seven.

To satisfy the third criterion of Standard B, at least 30% of the film’s overall crew must be members of the Big Four.

Now if a film has satisfied both Standards A and B, it’s In Like Flint (a James Coburn movie that did not win any Academy Awards) and nothing more is required. If not, it may still qualify by satisfying Standard C or D or both (depending on whether it needs to meet one or two Standards).

Standard C — “Industry Access and Opportunities” — includes two criteria and a film must satisfy both of them to qualify.

First, the film’s distribution or financing company must have paid apprenticeships or internships for members of the Big Four. These apprenticeship/internship opportunities are more extensive for major studios than they are for “mini-major” or independent studios, but they’re minutely detailed (covering ten industry departments) for all.

Second, the film’s production, distribution and/or financing company must offer training and/or work opportunities for below-the-line skill development to members of the Big Four.

Finally, we come to Standard D: “Audience Development.” To satisfy this Standard, the studio producing the film must have “multiple in-house senior executives” from the Big Four in their marketing, publicity, and/or distribution teams. In an apparent drafting oddity, Standard D’s reference to the Big Four goes on to specifically list each of the Seven groups, so a total of eleven different types of humans appear here.

So much for the Inclusion Standards. With their intricate detail, they may appeal to lawyers and certified public accountants. But for normal human beings they are almost unfathomable. They are also impractical.

For example, under the Standards, how does one actually determine the racial or ethnic category of an individual?  For the past two years, the highest paid actor in the world has been Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. His movies have grossed $10 billion worldwide. He is the child of African American and Samoan parents, with Nova Scotian and Irish heritage added in the mix. So where exactly does one compartmentalize The Rock under these Standards?

Privacy issues pose another enforcement problem. LGBTQ+ is one of the Big Four groups. What if an actor – or a hairstylist, makeup artist, or apprentice – would rather not disclose to some Academy lawyer or accountant his or her sexual preferences? What if he or she harbors the old-fashioned notion that that sort of thing is nobody else’s business? Do the auditors then just guess?

Then there is the problem of fraud. Rachel Dolozel, a white woman, passed herself off as black and served as chair of the Spokane, Washington NAACP chapter for years. If this sad, rather pathetic figure –who never had an acting lesson in her life – was able to carry on such a ruse, imagine what a trained actor could accomplish.

Actually, we don’t have to imagine. Marlon Brando, an eight-time Academy Award nominee and a two-time winner, avoided service during the Korean War by persuading the local draft board that he was a psychoneurotic. One of the Big Four categories is “cognitive disabilities,” If a studio, desperate to qualify, claims an actor has cognitive disabilities, how will the Academy adjudicate the claim? Certainly, some present-day Brando could employ the same deceptive skills with the Academy that the real Brando employed with his draft board.

Another enforcement complication arises from the last of the Seven groups: “Other underrepresented race or ethnicity.” By one academic count, there are 650 different ethnic groups in the world’s 190 countries. Who will measure which of these 650 groups is underrepresented, and thus deserving of “Other” status?

Yet another enforcement problem emerges from the third criterion of Standard A. (If you were paying attention, you would have remembered that there are three ways to satisfy this particular Standard!) That criterion calls for a storyline, theme, or narrative “centered” on one of the Big Four. How will that test be enforced?

Dances with Wolves was an Academy Award-winning movie about a white male U.S. Army officer, played by Kevin Costner, who comes to admire and gain acceptance by a tribe of Lakota Indians. Does the movie “center” on the Lakota (members of the Big Four) or on the white officer (not a member)?  The Last King of Scotland was an Academy Award winning movie about a white male Scottish doctor, played by James McAvoy, who is befriended by and becomes the doctor to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, played by Forest Whitaker. Does that film “center” on the black dictator (member) or on the white doctor (not a member)?

Ultimately, all these practical problems may not matter. For it is doubtful these Standards will ever be seriously enforced. They are not meant to be. Instead, they are meant to lend an aura of moral superiority to the industry, so its members may brandish their compliance and preen before the less enlightened folks who buy the tickets and subscribe to the streaming services which pay their outrageous salaries.

Nevertheless, the Standards deserve attention, if only because of the troubling issues they evoke.

One such issue is the very notion of “underrepresentation,” which requires us to assume that participation in entertainment should be based on demographics. Of course, there is nothing wrong with encouraging people of all backgrounds to enter the field and strive to succeed. And rules against discrimination based on race, sex, ethnicity, or sexual orientation should be strictly enforced. But beyond that, why assume that all groups should be represented in the film industry pro rata, in accordance with their percentage of the general populace?

If the film industry considers “underrepresentation” a problem, then it must necessarily consider “overrepresentation” an equal problem. After all, every pie has a fixed size. If one group’s slice is enlarged, another group’s slice must be diminished.

Does Hollywood have an “overrepresentation” problem? You bet it does. Consider the Jews, a small group that make up  about 2% of the American population, and about 0.2% (as in, one fifth of one percent) of the world population.

In his Golden Age of Jewish Achievement, Steven Pease (a venture capitalist who happens to be Presbyterian) notes that 38% of movie directors who have earned Oscars are Jewish. That’s not all:

Since their respective dates of inception, America’s leading symphony orchestras have been led by Jewish conductors one-third of the time. They have created nearly two-thirds of Broadway’s longest running musicals. Probably one-fourth of the greatest photographers of all time have been Jews, as have 10 percent of the world’s great master architects…. In broad artistic recognition, nearly 30 percent of the Kennedy Center honors and 13 percent of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Awards have gone to them.

Obviously, when it comes to the arts, there is a serious Jewish “overrepresentation” problem. Perhaps future Academy Standards will deal with it.

And Jews are not the only “overrepresentation” problem. Sports are a popular form of entertainment, drawing hundreds of millions of viewers every season. In that milieu, the stadium is the stage, and the players are the actors. And who constitute the actors? In the NBA, 82% of the players are black. In the NFL, the figure is 70%. Applying the Academy’s Standards to professional sports would mean encouraging teams to hire more white, Hispanic, and Asian athletes, all of whom are sadly “underrepresented.”

Another troubling issue is censorship. Recall that the third criterion of Standard A requires that a film’s main storyline, theme, or narrative be “centered” on one or more of the Big Four. This means the Academy is advising its members on what kinds of films to produce. Granted, this advice constitutes only one of three criteria for meeting only one of four Standards. There are plenty of ways to qualify for Best Picture consideration without satisfying this particular element. But in the highly competitive field of the Oscars, should the Academy be placing its thumb on such scales at all?  Imagine the outcry if the Corporation for Public Broadcasting said it would award grants for productions based on the lives of any and all American presidents, but that some of the grants – not all, mind you, just some — would be limited to productions based on the lives of Republican presidents.

We do not expect our institutions to tell artists what to paint. We do not expect – and likely would not tolerate – our institutions instructing authors what to write. The Academy should encourage excellence, but it is disturbing to see it pressure movie producers on what to produce.

The most troubling aspect of the Standards is their relationship to identity politics. They are based on the notion that human beings are defined by their race, gender, or sexual orientation. In the brave new identitarian world of the Academy’s Standards, individual values, experiences, and ideas account for little. One’s biological group membership shapes, if not defines, one’s role as a creator. This is a distasteful doctrine in any field of endeavor. But in the field of arts, it is particularly pernicious.

One can see this mentality in the New York Times story on the Standards. After praising the Standards for their “flexibility” in allowing many ways for a film to qualify for Best Picture consideration, the author concludes: “If a filmmaker still wants to make a war movie about white men like ‘1917’ or ‘American Sniper,’ that’s permissible ….”

To set the record straight, 1917 and American Sniper were not merely “war movies about white men.” They were cinematic masterpieces that delved into the subject of how individuals, coping with the madness of war, struggle to preserve their morality and sanity.  They were “war movies about white men” in the same way that War and Peace and The Red Badge of Courage were war novels about white men. In the same way that Seven Samurai was an epic adventure about Asian men. And just as Porgy and Bess was a tragic love story about black people.

To view those powerful creations and notice only race or ethnicity is to reveal a very narrow mind. Judging by the Standards, such a mind is exactly the Academy’s target audience.

1 Comment

Filed under Culture

One response to “THE ACADEMY FLUNKS OUT

  1. John Barton

    I was gagging by the end… utter horsepucky, all in the service of PC, as you point out.

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