Two years after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences faced immense public backlash for a lack of diversity among nominees, the Oscars appeared to take a step in the right direction as Jordan Peele won the award for Best Original Screenplay.
Peele, who wrote, directed, and helped produce the thriller film “Get Out”, is the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Only four black writers have received nominations for this category, though they have won three times in the parallel category for adapted screenplay (including Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney for last year’s best picture winner “Moonlight”). Peele received two other Oscar nominations for “Get Out”— for Best Director and Best Picture — but came up short in those categories.
While Peele’s victory shows progress in diversifying the Oscars, the Academy is still far from having a truly diverse field. First, the Academy itself must encourage a diverse array of films. Peele struggled to finish “Get Out” because he feared no one would produce the film and it would not find an audience. If the Academy and the leaders of the film industry helped support everyone with the passion for filmmaking, theaters could be flooded with a variety of quality films. This may lead to a more diverse Oscars field, leading to the Academy debunking the #OscarsSoWhite complaint from the 2016 ceremony.
Second, the Academy must continue to change its own makeup to be more representative of the filmmaking community. Since the controversial makeup of the Oscars nominees two years ago, the Academy has added nearly 1,500 new members “with an emphasis on women and people of color,” according to CNN. Although many of the Academy members are older white men, these new additions demonstrate that the Oscars is receptive to public opinion and recognizes the need for diverse perspectives in the awards ceremony.
The Oscars hands out 24 awards, though the most prestigious prizes remain best picture, best director, best actor and actress in a leading role, and best screenplay (original and adapted). African Americans have now claimed titles in each of those major categories except for best director. Peele was nominated for this award, yet joined the ranks of the four previous black nominees for best director who failed to come home with the crown.
In observing the Oscars’ attempt to shake its homogenous image, I cannot help but think of a quote from Chris Rock — who hosted the 2016 Oscars — about one of the fundamental flaws in the awards show. “There’s no real reason for there to be a man and woman category in acting,” Rock said. “It’s not track and field.”
Rock ran with this metaphor, arguing that Robert De Niro does not have to “slow [his] acting down so Meryl Streep can catch up.”
Ultimately, I hope that we see more diverse nominees and Oscar winners, to the point where we can make Rock’s distinction apply to race. Imagine a world in which there is nothing notable about the race of the Oscar nominees and winners — no need to label the winner as the “first” anything except for the first in their category. The field is diverse, and the individuals who deserve recognition receive it.
This is not to say that we should not honor Peele and other representatives of minorities in Hollywood for breaking down the film industry’s barriers. On the contrary, my hope is that these “firsts” come as soon as possible so that we can celebrate such individuals for their successes in filmmaking. Perhaps once these milestones have been achieved, we can move past these labels and begin to see films in other terms besides black and white.