Most Oscar Voters Are White, Male ... Out Of Touch?

The Los Angeles Times published a study claiming that more than 90 percent of Oscar voters are white, and more than three-quarters are male. The stats are raising questions about whether minorities and women are getting fair changes of winning awards. Host Michel Martin speaks with Reginald Hudlin, a black voter and film director.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, I want to talk about a different group of people who are also dreaming of a big step up in their careers. The Hollywood hopefuls who will attend the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday.

This year, there is a new debate about the people who decide who gets one of those golden statues. Just who those voters are has traditionally been kept somewhat under wraps, but the Los Angeles Times recently reported that nearly 94 percent of Academy Award voters are white, 77 percent are male and they have a median age of 62. And that's raising questions about whether the Academy is fully in touch with the American movie-going public and whether it is, in fact, capable of giving a fair shake to women and minorities.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we called filmmaker Reginald Hudlin. He's directed movies, including "House Party" and "Boomerang" and, in recent years, he's directed hit television shows like "Modern Family" and "The Office." He's also one of the few African-Americans who is a voting member of the Academy.

Now, he's currently producing Quentin Tarantino's latest work, "Django Unchained," but he took time out to talk with us from NPR West in Culver City. Thanks so much for joining us. Thanks for taking a break to talk to us at this busy time for you.

REGINALD HUDLIN: Oh, thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: How exactly do you become a voting member of the Academy?

HUDLIN: Well, a member has to nominate you. I actually don't know who nominated me and I'd like to take this moment to thank whoever threw my hat in the ring because it's wonderful to be a member. It's a wonderful organization to be a member of, to be able to participate in.

MARTIN: Are you surprised by this report? What was your reaction when you saw it?

HUDLIN: I'm not surprised. When you go to Academy memberships, you know, you kind of see the demographic right there and, like a lot of these organizations that have lifetime memberships, whether it's the Oscars or the Grammys or whatever, of course, the majority of voters are older because, you know, once you're in, you're in.

And while I appreciate that there's always a lot of focus on - hey, there's not a lot of ethnic representation around Oscar time - the reality is, you know, those decisions are sort of made a year or two before the Oscars occur.

You know, the challenge is, as one of the governors of the Academy, Phil Alden Robinson, said, you know, the membership of the Academy is made up of working people in the film business and, until that's more diversified, you're not going to have a more diversified Academy membership. So it starts before that.

MARTIN: And, in fact, Frank Pierson, the former Academy - he's a former Academy president. He's an Oscar winner. He was quoted in the L.A. Times report. This is what he said. He said, I don't see any reason why the Academy should represent the entire American population. That's what the People's Choice Awards are for. We represent the professional filmmakers and if that doesn't reflect the general population, so be it.

HUDLIN: Uh-huh.

MARTIN: You agree, disagree?

HUDLIN: I disagree, obviously. I mean, to me, you can't help but notice that the most financially successful Best Picture nominee is "The Help," which features Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, so I think it is in the best interest of the film industry to diversify, and that, you know, whether it's a movie like "The Help" or a movie like "Slumdog Millionaire," you obviously can have incredibly well made films made by black filmmakers, like a fellow Academy member like John Singleton, who was nominated for - many years ago to, you know, actors like Denzel Washington and so on. So the false choice between popular and quality is nonsensical.

MARTIN: We're talking with film director, Reginald Hudlin. He's a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which puts on the Academy Awards, which is this Sunday. And we're talking about a new report about the lack of diversity in that voting group.

You know, speaking of "The Help," you know, that is one of those things. Is it a Rorschach test? I mean, some people cite "The Help" as an example of why the Academy is not making films for - it's satisfying kind of a certain world view about the role that African-Americans and women should play in this country.

Other people cite it as an example of the success of, you know, diversity because it's bringing a story to life that hasn't been brought before. Can I just ask your take on that?

HUDLIN: Well, I mean, for me, it's - to me, again, these are false choices, to say, you know, "The Help," good or bad? It's not a matter of that. The point is "The Help" should exist and I want to see more films by Casey Lemons, a black woman filmmaker. You know, the challenge is the black art film, the black prestige film is so - you know, it's easier to find bigfoot than to find movies in that category and I think that's where you always end up with this story around Oscar time. Like, oh, how come there aren't more films and more talent in all categories being nominated for Oscars? Because those kind of films aren't getting made.

Typically, black films are made and they're making fewer of them than ever. They are made as inexpensively as possible to make as much money as possible, but even in that sense, they're usually made for domestic audiences. You know, usually, black films aren't given the kind of resources to make a global hit, the kind of - whether it be special effects or scope to, you know, have that kind of global impact. And those are the kind of self-fulfilling prophecies that keep black film perceived as a niche category.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for your perspective on this. As I mentioned, you're right in the middle of another project yourself, so it's good of you to take the time to talk with us and, hopefully, when you get your golden statue, you'll still remember that you knew us when. Right? You'll be giving a shout out from the stage?

HUDLIN: Maybe.

MARTIN: I want to thank my friends from NPR who talked about us, but - all right. Reginald Hudlin is a - maybe not - is a director, writer, producer and occasionally an actor and he is also a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and we've been talking about the lack of diversity in that group and a new report about that.

Reginald Hudlin, thank you so much for joining us.

HUDLIN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, a lot of little girls dream of being princesses, doctors or ballerinas when they grow up. Annabeth Barnes has a different idea.

ANNABETH BARNES: It's been my dream since I was seven years old that I wanted to be a professional race car driver.

MARTIN: Out of the way, boys. She wants to win the Daytona 500 some day. We'll have her story just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: The justices of the Supreme Court say they will hear a case challenging diversity policies for college admissions. The high court is more conservative than it was the last time it tackled the issue, so is it just a matter of time before affirmative action is expelled from higher education? Does it even work? Do we even need it? The Barber Shop guys will weigh in next time on TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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