BEVERLY HILLS, California: When Cheryl Boone Isaacs presides over the Oscars on March 2, her mere presence will convey a statement on diversity in Hollywood as the first African-American president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its third woman in its 86 years.
But as the head of a body that takes knocks every year at Oscar voting time for a 6,000-plus membership that is overwhelmingly white, mostly male and older, Boone Isaacs offers no quick fixes for diversifying the academy or the industry. Experience tells her it’s a long haul and it comes down ultimately to proving excellence in the motion picture industry. She herself put in 21 years on the academy’s Board of Governors, held every office, and worked three decades in film marketing before she was elected president last summer.
“I believe very strongly that the entertainment and motion picture business is going to be more open and aware of different voices,” Boone Isaacs told Reuters in an interview at the academy’s headquarters, a large golden Oscar statuette looming in the background.
She prefers to talk about voices in storytelling, rather than gender or race, and steers the conversation on diversity back to the films competing this year for Hollywood’s highest honors.
Boone Isaacs calls it the best year for performances and films “in the last decade or so,” and said there are “quite a few films that give us a different voice, a more diverse voice.”
“The themes for the nine films nominated for Best Picture are really a wide range. And that is what makes it very special.” There is the possibility that one historic racial barrier might be broken on her watch on Oscars night. If “12 Years a Slave,” the slavery drama from British director Steve McQueen, wins Best Picture, it would be the first time that a black director’s film has taken the top Oscar.
While Boone Isaacs takes a cautious line when talking about diversity, she doesn’t hold back on what that particular milestone would mean to the industry.
“I would say that means a major door will have been kicked down.” she said. The academy is not a reflection of society, but its membership is meant to be a reflection of Hollywood’s film industry. Applicants are asked for their name, their work history and sponsorship from two academy members.