The little we know about the 6,000 Academy members who vote on the Oscars tells us a lot

So, so white.
So, so white.
Image: AP/Charles Sykes
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If the list of Oscar nominees put forth this year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences makes it sound like the group is an old boys’ club, it is.

The 88-year-old organization does not publicly disclose its membership—comprised of nearly 6,000 film industry professionals who decide each year’s Oscar nominees and winners—but a 2012 investigation by the Los Angeles Times determined that 94% of Academy members were white. Black filmmakers and actors made up just 2% of the membership; Latinos, less than that. The group was about 77% male and also skewed older, with a median age of 62 years old. Only 14% of members were younger than 50.

The Academy has made efforts in recent years to bring more women and people of color into the fold. But its members serve for life, meaning measurable change will be slow. The LA Times reported in 2013 that the Academy had added 432 new voting members over two years, and while the recruits were relatively diverse compared with past classes, the film industry group was still 93% white. Meanwhile, the average age crept up to 63 years old. Last year, the group added another 322 members, including several high-profile black actors and directors, and announced a diversity initiative targeting women and minorities, according to the Hollywood Reporter. This still wasn’t enough to tip the scales in favor of a more diverse slate of nominees for this year’s Oscars, inspiring the return of the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.

The Academy had been largely silent on the recent lamenting over the lack of diversity, until actress Jada Pinkett Smith and director Spike Lee announced on Monday (Jan. 18) they were boycotting this year’s Feb. 28 awards ceremony in response. That day, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is African-American, released a statement celebrating this year’s batch of nominees, but also saying she was “heartbroken and frustrated” by its lack of diversity. She also said the Academy would review its member recruitment process.

The Academy’s recruitment process is somewhat reminiscent of an exclusive country club: Applications aren’t accepted; instead, prospective members must be sponsored by two current members—the exemption is when you’ve been nominated for an Oscar, in which case you’re automatically considered for membership. That would certainly open the doors for more actors and filmmakers of color—if more actors and filmmakers of color were being nominated for Academy Awards. The question is whether that will require greater diversification of the Academy membership first. Based on this year’s slate of nominees, it most certainly will.