The exit of Cheryl Boone Isaacs from the presidency and board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has critics worried that the Oscars' progress on diversity could come to a halt just as it was getting a foothold.
Isaacs, the first African-American to serve as president of the organization, led the academy toward sweeping changes intended to diversify its powerful voting membership, which decides which films and actors get to go home with Oscar statuettes. Last year, amid a shutout of African-Americans in acting categories, #OscarsSoWhite online protests and a boycott by the National Action Network, Rev. Al Sharpton, Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith, Isaacs and the board took action by phasing out automatic lifetime membership.
The new, 10-year spans for voting members would, theoretically, fracture the demographics of the academy, which is 90 percent white in a county that's nearly 75 percent minority. The board also voted to add three seats to its own membership. Those will go to folks nominated by the president. And Isaacs last year also promised to double the number of minorities members by 2020.
“I am hopeful that the new leadership will be equally committed to her vow to double the number of women and people of color within the academy,” April Reign, the former attorney who started the #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign, said via email.
Indeed, now that the president isn't a minority — casting director David Rubin and actress Laura Dern are reportedly interested in the unpaid but potent job — it's fair to wonder if the organization's diversity efforts will be short-lived.
“That's something we're very concerned about,” says Najee Ali, leader of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Action Network, which spearheaded last year's boycott. “Obviously the new president can decide to go in a new direction.”
“I hope that doesn't mean that diversity efforts are over now that she's out,” adds Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which has pressured Hollywood on its lack of diversity. “The academy still has a long way to go.”
The jury is still out on whether Isaacs was a crusader for demographic and cultural justice in Hollywood or just a cog bending to pressure on diversity. Nogales argues, “We have to give her credit. She forced the board to put more people of color in the academy.” Ali says, however, that Isaacs didn't act until #OscarsSoWhite and the boycott hit a fever pitch last year by generating global headlines.
“I don't want people thinking she did this out of her own good will,” he says. “Activists forced her to make changes.”
Isaacs is reportedly weary after controversies that dogged her tenure, including #OscarsSoWhite and this year's debacle that saw the wrong best picture winner announced on the world stage. Her exit, however, also settles an apparent power struggle between Isaacs and academy CEO Dawn Hudson, who's contacted to be in her job through 2020.