Politics in art is a sensitive subject, but it is one that has been a driving force in all forms of art since the wall paintings on ancient Egyptian temples. Politicising art, however, is a more controversial subject, and it becomes even more controversial when preset political agendas control the forms of art concerned, especially TV productions and films.
The decision by the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which annually awards the prestigious Oscars for the best films of the year, has recently taken one of its most controversial decisions in recent years. The academy has introduced a new set of standards, to be applied in 2024, which must be followed by films to be eligible for the Best Picture Award.
These standards, labelled as “inclusive” ones, state that for any film to qualify for an Oscar in the Best Picture category it must meet at least four standards or criteria. At least one of the lead actors or significant supporting actors in the film must be from an “under-represented” racial or ethnic group, defined as Asian, Hispanic/Latino, Black/African-American, Indigenous/Native-American/Alaskan Native, Middle Eastern/North-African, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, or another under-represented race or ethnicity.
At least 30 per cent of the film’s crew must be chosen from the following under-represented groups: women, a racial or ethnic group, people identifying as LGBTQ+, people with cognitive or physical disabilities, or people who are deaf or hard of hearing. The main story of the film or the main storyline, theme, or narrative of the film must be centred on an under-represented group or groups.
The four standards are broken into nine criteria introduced by the academy on the pretext of promoting inclusion and fighting racism. Yet, had such standards been applied only a few years ago classic US films such as The Godfather, The Silence of the Lambs, The Lord of the Rings or The Departed would not have been eligible to win a Best Picture Award. Even this year’s Oscar nominee for Best Picture, the film 1917, would not qualify, and of course it would also be ineligible to win the award.
A hypothetical film about the adventures of 10 Viking warriors would not receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture unless 30 per cent of the film’s production crew were from “under-represented” categories, as explained above. If the film had something like 25 per cent of its crew from under-represented categories, and not 30 per cent, it would also be tossed out of the competition no matter how brilliant it was.
The new standards will force world-class filmmakers and studios to shift their focus from hiring the best and best-qualified crew to focusing on choosing their crew based on race, religion and sexual preference. In other words, filmmaking will become a struggle to meet politically correct criteria that are quite hard to meet, rather than an activity aiming to make works of art.
In turn, the new rules will likely dim the chances of films such as US director Martin Scorsese’s gangster movies, or genres such as Westerns, ever to qualify for the Best Picture nomination at the Oscars unless the producers somehow manage to meet a new formula that mimics the making of a US Food and Drug Administration-approved drug rather than a work of art.
As a result of the new standards, new problems will arise. Enforcing quotas of suitable actors and crew members in films may be good opportunities for some new talents, but they will also likely be seen as negative by veterans of the industry, including non-white actors or crew members. These may feel that they have been chosen for a film not on the basis of their talent, but in order to complete a quota or to meet a standard that is disrespectful to them and their careers.
There is nothing wrong with an all-black cast, or an all-white cast, an all-women cast, an all-Christian cast, or an all-Muslim cast for that matter, if the story of the film demands one. But enforcing the presence of diverse characters in a film just for the sake of diversity simply politicises the art of cinema to cater to political agendas.
It is no secret that historically the Oscars have been less than fair, or even bigoted, towards actors of colour. Even some groundbreaking roles by legendary actors such as Samuel L Jackson have not been enough to grant them Oscars. Film legends like Morgan Freeman, regarded as one of the greatest US actors of all time, only won an Oscar once, while James Earl Jones only won an honourary Oscar in 2011.
The case of African-American women and other non-white actors has not been much better and has only improved in recent years. That said, the Oscars have been changing, however, and a great actor like Mahershala Ali has won an Oscar twice in recent years. None of these black actors, or any other actors, would likely accept an Oscar as part of a quota, a kind of consolation prize, and would only accept one based on their talent and creativity.
Luckily, some artists have started to speak out against such moves by the academy, and Hollywood star Kirstie Alley has described the list of new standards as a “disgrace to artists everywhere.” While she reiterated her support for diversity, inclusion and tolerance, she said she was opposed to mandated arbitrary percentages relating to hiring professionals in the cinema business.
It seems a “woke” culture, one conscious of issues concerning social justice and racial justice, is taking over the United States but unfortunately in an unhealthy manner that has led to a “cancellation culture” in which some US citizens are effectively silenced in the name of political correctness. Many of the victims of this new culture are politicians and celebrities, and these are being bashed on social-media networks for simply saying the wrong things according to the perfectionist standards of the time.
Of course, the horrific killing of African-American man George Floyd by a white police officer last May in the US state of Minnesota has caused unprecedented ripples across US society, and it is still having repercussions today, including in the spread of “cancellation culture” and the new standards for the Oscars. While the Oscars will likely remain the most-coveted cinema award by all those who work in the film industry, these new standards will likely diminish their value and the perception of cinema audiences towards their winners.
Undoubtedly, these are politically turbulent times in the United States, and the new Oscars standards are a reflection of how far some are willing to go to appease either minorities or certain groups for political gains, to meet a certain agenda, to gain media exposure, or out of simple hypocrisy. The new set of standards may have been written with good intentions, but good intentions are not enough to make positive changes, and in many cases they do the opposite. After all, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly