Oscars Still So White, and The Academy’s Newest Category May Not Fix the Problem

By: Mary Iannone, Program Manager

On August 8, the Academy—the organization that nominates and hands out the Oscar statuettes—announced that it will add “Best Popular Film” to the annual ceremony. 

Of course, all movies are subjective, and the term “popular” is relatively meaningless. But the Oscars are a massive platform for representation, and the proposed changes at best dilute and at worst directly harm the power of the film industry. By creating this category, the Academy is decreeing that what is popular is not serious, does not deserve legitimate critical praise, and is not worthy of the lasting cultural status that comes with Oscar glory. In other words, popular is not good, and will certainly never be Best.

Just 15 years ago, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King became just the second movie in history to gross over one billion dollars at the box office. Two months later, the movie swept the 76th annual Academy Awards, winning all 11 categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture. Return of the King was the epitome of a popular film—it was a big-budget, high-fantasy, blockbuster action movie. Not only was it a sequel, it was a threequel. So what has happened in the last decade and a half to make the so-called “popular film” into a genre seemingly so unworthy of critical praise that it necessitates an entirely separate category of recognition? 

Chris Rock at the OscarsOne answer is glaringly obvious—the elves and Hobbits of Middle Earth were white. The Wakandans of Black Panther, the success of which some say was the impetus for this decision, are, of course, Black. In June, The Academy invited 928 new members, 49% of whom were women and 38% of whom were people of color. But while this was a record, the numbers are still dismal overall; approximately 30% of the entire body are women, while just 16% are people of color. The implication cannot be ignored; can a film be both “popular” and “Best” if it centers a group of people so underrepresented in the Academy’s own ranks?

And the Academy should be holding itself to a higher standard of inclusion—one that recognizes the responsibility of its prestigious position in the cultural landscape.

Because also in the announcement—though relatively overlooked—was the decision to shorten the Oscars ceremony to three hours, meaning several categories (for now left vague) will no longer be televised. So what categories will we lose? Best Editing, which has had only two female winners in the last 30 years, and only two Black nominees ever? Best Production Design, with zero Black nominees? Best Makeup and Hairstyling, with zero Black nominees and only one Asian nominee? Or maybe Best Cinematography, for which only one woman has ever been nominated—and only just last year?

Lupita at OscarsWhen Lupita Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress, she said: “When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” Her emotional speech resonated with so many. Why can’t the same be true for young aspiring editors, or visual artists, or costume designers?

Of course, the Oscars are not an all-encompassing litmus test of film quality. But they are an unmatched platform for visibility. Let’s prioritize representation over ratings, and let’s expand our definition of “Best.”