For the first time ever, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences has elected an African American woman as their President. Before they did so, Cheryl Boone Isaacs already stood out as a member of the Board of Governors.
Part of the reason the Academy has been so utterly and completely white for the past 86 years is that their demographic matches their tastes. There have been years where diversity broke through — 1985, for instance, when Steven Spielberg used his box office clout to bring The Color Purple to the big screen. He was shamed for it and the film went 11/0 at the Oscars. There wouldn’t be another Best Picture contender with an all-black cast until Precious, nearly twenty years later.
The other significant moment in recent Academy history was Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing being overlooked the same year Driving Miss Daisy made Academy history and now joins Argo as one of the few films to win without a director’s nomination. But the Academy has had its moments of redemption. Halle Berry and Denzel Washington winning the same year seemed, at the time, like maybe things had really and finally changed for black actors at the Oscars. But to date, Berry is still the only black actress who has ever won in lead. In 86 years. Viola Davis came close two years ago by winning the SAG, among others, but lost to Meryl Streep, who collected her long overdue third Oscar. To date, there have been ten black actresses nominated for lead, compared to 19 for black actors. The supporting categories, especially for women, feature the most wins (5/15).