The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did something unprecedented this week. No, they didn't finally give Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar. Instead, they elected their first African-American president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Oh, and she also happens to be a woman. As only the third woman and first African-American to hold the post, this news could have a major impact on the future of the Academy and more importantly to us, the Oscars.
Boone Isaacs's ascent to the head of the Academy is surprising, and not because she isn't qualified. Her resume boasts such positions as head of CBI Enterprises, president of theatrical marketing for New Line Cinema, and executive vice president of worldwide publicity at Paramount Pictures. No, this win is quite astonishing because the Academy has traditionally been dominated by white men. This is not just conjecture either. In 2012 a Los Angeles Times study laid out the demographics of Academy members and determined it is a largely homogenous group. They found that voters are 94% white and 77% male. Perhaps this explains the lack of diversity in the Oscar nominees themselves. After all, if only a certain group are voting, then it's easy to assume that group will vote for films and filmmakers they can relate to.
What sort of changes can Boone Isaacs make as head of the Academy? Previously, the role of Academy president was largely ceremonial. However recent post-holders have taken it upon themselves to bring about changes, including diversifying the Academy itself. And if her first week on the job is any indication, Boone Isaacs's tenure will mark an era of increased inclusion for minorities. Day one of her new position included a meeting with Oscar ceremony producers, and within 48 hours Ellen Degeneres was announced as host of the 2014 broadcast. Considering the past 10 years of Oscar have been dominated by white males — Degeneres, Chris Rock, and Anne Hathaway being the exceptions — Degeneres is an important choice. While it may come as an answer to the backlash against the Seth McFarlane disaster of 2013, it still means a lot that the organizers chose a gay woman to host film's biggest night, and at the urging of the new president no less.
This attempt at diversifying is also filtering down to the composition of the Academy itself. Voters have traditionally been white males, but this year's new crop looks to be a deliberate attempt to change the demographics. Those among the newest Academy members are Jennifer Lopez, Paula Patton, Michael Pena, Lena Dunham, Catherine Hardwicke, Sarah Polley, John Lee Hancock, and Steve McQueen (director of Shame, not the star of The Great Escape) among others. This initiative began under previous president Hawk Koch and looks to continue under Boone Isaacs. The changing demographics will hopefully impact the outcome of the Oscar ceremonies, and 2013 couldn't be a better year to do so.
This is already being touted as a potentially historic year for black cinema at the Oscars. The fact that it's a realistic possibility that three of the best actor nominees could be African American — Idris Elba, Forest Whitaker, and Chiwetel Ejiofor — is as promising for the Academy as Boone Isaacs's win. While I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, I can only hope that the buzz surrounding these films and others manifest in nominations at February's ceremony. If they do, it would mean that the attempt at diversity is making a difference at the most important level. After all, the viewing public is really only affected by the Academy in terms of the Oscar winners.
Isaac Boone's win could mean a drastic change in the Academy Awards, but it is dependant upon her actions. Will she continue to push for a diverse membership? Her recent actions point to yes. If she does, maybe in 10 years' time a black female president won't be cause for such commotion: it will just be more of the same. But until then, I choose to celebrate Boone Isaacs's win and hope that she can bring more historic moments to this organisation and the film industry as a whole.