Just a year after 12 Years a Slave’s worthy victory (which some right-wing blogs dismissed as a triumph of “white guilt”), the Oscars were pilloried when Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King biopic Selma received only one major Oscar nomination, for Best Picture. It seemed strange that a film so suited to the Academy’s taste—so steeped in history and widely praised, with such a transformative performance at its center—could miss with voters. Some blamed a lackluster campaign, while others anonymously bashed the film as “artless,” but one familiar voice pointed out a wider trend in typically candid fashion.
“Anyone who thinks  was gonna be like last year is retarded,” Spike Lee told The Daily Beast in an interview. “There were a lot of black folks up there with 12 Years a Slave, Steve [McQueen], Lupita [Nyong’o], Pharrell. It’s in cycles of every 10 years. Once every 10 years or so I get calls from journalists about how people are finally accepting black films. Before last year, it was the year [in 2002] with Halle Berry, Denzel [Washington], and Sidney Poitier. It’s a 10-year cycle. So I don’t start doing backflips when it happens.”
Lee was perhaps too pithy, as he often is—several notable black actors won Oscars between 2002 and 2014—but his larger point seemed prescient. Despite the historic nature of its victory, 12 Years a Slave wasn’t indicative of a larger trend in Hollywood toward embracing stories made by and starring people of color; if anything, the opposite was true. The 2015 and 2016 nomination lists had their standouts, their critical favorites, their big-budget blockbusters, but there were a number of works they consistently overlooked.
On the surface Creed or Straight Outta Compton might not seem like typical “Oscar-bait,” but both were Hollywood success stories through and through, with the kind of mythmaking the Academy recognizes all the time. Every question as to why they hadn’t fared better circled back to a depressing statistic: Academy voters are 93 percent white and 76 percent male.
This is what Isaacs is hoping to address. In a memo presented to members, she noted that the closed-circle, invite-only perception of the Academy might have hurt its chances of attracting new people. “The concern has been that a lot of highly qualified potential members were falling outside our radar,” she said. “Many thought they had to wait to be invited, and didn’t know they could apply for membership, through a sponsorship process. We are not lowering any standards, we’re widening our net.”
Tell that to the voters. A series of op-eds published by The Hollywood Reporter has exposed the entrenched nature of incumbency, as members who’ve contributed little to film in recent decades publicly rail at the perception that they’re part of the problem. Of course, these voices reflect only a small segment of the Academy’s 6,000 members. But they’re revealing nonetheless.