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Fraser Heston On The Oscars, His Letter To The Academy And Solving Hollywood's Diversity Crisis


Marked by Chris Rock’s brash, gut-punching commentary about Hollywood’s racial divide, Leonardo Dicaprio claiming his first Oscar win, Lady Gaga delivering an emotional performance and Brie Larson’s touching acceptance speech — the 85th annual Academy Awards was surely a night to remember.

Dressed in well-tailored tuxes and stunning designer dresses, many of industry’s brightest stars aligned for arguably the most distinguished ceremony in entertainment. Yet, what was expected to be an evening of reverence and admiration was stifled by an undertone of disinterest and disappointment. This year’s television ratings for the Oscars telecast reached a 7-year low, attracting just 34.3 million viewers. The awards dropped to a 23.4 rating among households in 56 of the top television markets in the U.S. This total is a 6% drop from 2015.

The Academy Awards have suffered intense scrutiny for an evident and expressed lack of diversity, extending from its list of nominees and winners, down to the racial and cultural makeup of the academy’s active voting members. Although each year is certain to stir healthy debates over alleged snubs, the overt crisis crippling the academy serves as a microcosm to an overarching issue that has haunted Hollywood for decades.

This year’s awards more specifically drew widespread attention following the passionate statements made by black leaders in entertainment such as Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett-Smith. It was Pinkett-Smith’s candid Facebook video that quickly went viral, igniting an ongoing media storm that echoed sentiments of the need to diversify all aspects of the film industry. With Pinkett-Smith, Spike Lee and others boycotting the awards, the Academy responded by sending an announcement declaring their commitment to reforming existing voter rights, eligibility and hints at further plans to promote inclusion within the Academy.

On the heels of the Academy’s decision to revoke the voting rights of members who are not “active” in motion pictures within a decade, award-winning filmmaker Fraser Heston sent a piercing letter to Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the Board of Governors. In the letter, Heston declared his dissatisfaction with the Academy’s handling of the issue, pointing to a presumed lack of professionalism, integrity and due process. Beyond pointing to a perceived negligence, the root of Heston’s frustration rests in his belief that the Academy fails to properly address and take accountability for the deeper institutional deficiencies fueling the problem.

Fraser Heston is a voting member of the Director’s Branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences. Fraser’s father, renowned actor and storied Civil Rights activist Charlon Heston, was also a longtime voting member of the Academy, in addition to serving as a three-term President of the Screen Actors Guild. As one of the most politically involved actors of his generation, Charlton Heston was an outspoken advocate for President John F. Kennedy and marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., standing as a strong supporter of his movement even after King’s untimely assassination.

While race does stand as an inescapable factor, Heston states he has never taken race into account when voting, doubting that his fellow members have either. Instead, he believes there must be a greater emphasis on opening up the Academy to more members with expansive cultural experiences. Heston is convinced this move, among other clear steps, will not only add context to commonly overlooked films and performances, but make them collectively more relatable. According to Heston, the disconnect is not merely a matter of skin color, but rather a detachment from understanding the ethos that makes minority films like Selma, Straight Outta Compton and Beasts of No Nation masterful works worthy of recognition.

I spoke with Fraser about his letter to the Academy, expanding the concept of diversity and the necessary steps needed see more diverse stories and storytellers in Hollywood.

What has the response been since sending your letter to the Academy?

The Academy backed down slightly. On April 18th, they sent another letter out stating that they’re going to let the definition of activity be determined per each individual branch of the Academy. That’s a step, but there is still so much work to do. I credit this progress to the efforts of those, like myself, who voiced their opposition to the negligent way the Academy approached addressing the diversity issue. There were other letters similar to mine that were sent to the president and board. We kind of got a strong point across. Solving the Oscar issue, or solving for diversity within the Academy does not solve the Hollywood diversity crisis. That’s much bigger and attached to a much deeper history of exclusion. Whether the Academy is even the right forum for attacking this problem, it’s important to stand up and use the power we do have to hold them accountable.

So much of the ongoing discussions about diversity speak specifically to race and ethnicity — How important is it to welcome members with more diverse cultural perspectives and experiences?

It’s extremely important, and something the Academy should certainly take into account. We should be trying to pay more attention to all kinds of diverse issues and stories, not just race. There should be more roles and storylines for and about women. Of greater importance is how these stories are being told. We should be telling diverse stories in honest, meaningful ways, not just knee-jerk ways. We should be exploring how we can tell the stories of minorities in more lasting and important ways, and be able to appreciate the art in them. I’d like to see interesting stories about people and parts of the world I’ve never heard of. I really enjoyed Straight Outta Compton, not because I’m a Hip Hop historian, but because it was about a world I knew nothing about. The film was both fascinating and informative for me. I would look for more interesting stories like that. I think the industry is going to respond

Do you believe the Academy will truly answer the call and major changes will be made to the Academy going forward?

I think there are going to be some pretty big changes. The film business is not a democracy, it’s a business. You can’t win on either side, because it’s neither art nor business completely. Nowadays, it’s much more corporate and you don’t know who is making the decisions. The voting system is pretty archaic. In order to increase racial diversity, there are several steps we need to take. So, the Academy’s initial notion that it has nothing to do now with racial diversity is absurd. What would have happened to Beats of No Nation if Harvey Weinstein picked up that picture? It would have been all over the place and probably would’ve got one or two nominations. Real change begins with being honest about your flaws and having an actionable plan to fix them.

What are some of the fundamental changes that should be made to the Academy’s process going forward?

Organizations like the Academy, a private organization, need to simplify the process and come up with a more comprehensive methodology for selecting both nominees and winners. They should eliminate the weighted voting system, remove some of the unfair requirements for nomination, and possibly increase the number of members so everyone can continue to vote without compromising its merit. Most people who are not in this business don’t realize how difficult it is to get a film made, then move it through the festival circuit, and eventually reach the box office. It would be a mistake if the Academy came back next year and rushed with nominations just to lessen the outrage. For example, jumping to nominate more films or filmmakers of color just for the sake of diversity would appear to many minority members of the industry as a slap in the face. But, there should be a fair, simplified process that doesn’t restrict their chances of consideration.

Seeing the work of your father and being deep in the industry for so many years — How do you see the Academy mending the racial divide in Hollywood?

I think the issues of diversity in Hollywood, and society as a whole, really come out of an ignorance and fear that you can judge a person by some kind of external trait or label. We should be working collectively to remove those labels. It takes an effort from all sides to open our minds and seek to understand each other and our experiences. Beyond that, we must get to a place where we aren’t afraid to be exposed to things outside of our comfort zones. Then, we can see what unites us all, instead of what separates us. I think there is a lot of hope for this country, and we can mend the racial divide. We are a diverse nation. We are a nation of immigrants and diverse people. We have no choice but to look toward a time when we can overcome or continue to overcome those adversities.

You attended a movie screening hosted by Louis Gossett Jr. that included several members of the Civil Rights Movement who knew your father — What did you take away from that experience?

My takeaway from all that was that these guys not only put their sacred honor on the line, but they could’ve been beaten up and killed; some of them were. These guys are the real thing. It’s wonderful that they’re still around and have organizations that try to preserve that memory. These people are like natural treasures we need to mine. The degree of forgiveness in them is phenomenal. They served the people and stood against oppression with nothing but love, forgiveness and understanding. They fought hatred and revenge with love and understanding. This is to important for all activists. It’s a time when you were putting more on the line than simply an academy nomination. It’s important to keep it in perspective, but it’s also important to understand that cops are still killing black people around the country. The real battle is much bigger, and our focus must also be much bigger in order to truly solve this problem.