When Frances McDormand won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, she began her speech by admitting to the audience that she was hyperventilating. She then asked that, should she fall over, someone pick her up, "because I have things to say."
After issuing standard thank-yous to others on the film and her family, she asked all the women in the audience who'd been nominated for an Oscar to stand. (She encouraged Meryl Streep, sitting in the front row to stand, saying that if she did it, everyone would. Streep, who'd been in contention for McDormand's Best Actress Oscar was gracious enough to stand anyway, and everyone did.)
Then McDormand told the audience to look around. All these women have stories to tell and projects that need funding, she said. She suggested the studio executives talk to them about it--not at the Oscar after parties, but in their offices during business hours.
And then she said this: "I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen. Inclusion rider." The audience responded with whoops and applause, and McDormand curtsied and left the stage.
Yup, I was one of those millions, being clueless when it comes to all things Hollywood. The mystery was quickly solved, though. Within minutes of when the speech aired, The Hollywood Reporter had posted a helpful translation.
In fact, the suggestion for the inclusion rider was made in a 2016 TED Talk by media researcher Stacy Smith, who noted the imbalance of male and female characters in Hollywood movies, and that this imbalance has been unchanged for more than 50 years. She proposed that A-list talent working in Hollywood movies add riders to their contracts requiring the characters in these movies to "reflect the world in which we actually live."
She also suggested that Hollywood should adopt a version of the NFL's "Rooney Rule" when hiring directors and studio executives. The Rooney Rule requires NFL teams to interview non-white candidates for head coach and other senior positions, although they're under no obligation to hire them. Even so, the Rooney Rule has led to a substantial increase in the diversity of NFL head coaches, and a similar rule has been enacted at Facebook. In her final suggestion, Smith encouraged the viewing public to vote for inclusion with their wallets, by seeking out films with female and/or non-white directors and strong female characters.
McDormand has a point.
It seems there's an age-old debate between those who think some form of affirmative action is needed to redress gender and racial imbalances and those who believe that if we simply enforce anti-discrimination rules properly, these issues will solve themselves over time. But, at least as far as Hollywood is concerned, nothing is solving itself over time. This weekend's Oscars were the 90th time the ceremony has been held, and still. Scores of women have come forward this past year to report a mind-boggling level of sexual harassment and abuse within the industry. Many of the Oscar categories had no or only one female nominee, and no or only one non-white nominee. And just a few weeks ago, the media made a scandal out of something that is likely common practice: When Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams reported to the studio for 10 days to reshoot scenes for All the Money in the World (ironically, because of sexual harassment allegations against Kevin Spacey), Wahlberg was paid $2 million and Williams was paid about $800, or $80 a day. Clearly, time, evolution, a year's worth of #MeToo headlines and the bankruptcy of Harvey Weinstein's company are not enough to bring any meaningful change.
Of course, Hollywood did what Hollywood does best, and yesterday's ceremony should be nicknamed "The Diversity Oscars." All five of the nominated Best Songs performed throughout the evening celebrated diversity in one way or another, and so did many of the speeches, as well as much of Jimmy Kimmel's opening monologue. If talking about diversity and celebrating the achievements of people who aren't white males were anything to go by, those of us who want to see more diversity in Hollywood and the world at large would have a lot to be happy about.
Unfortunately, they aren't anything to go by. It would be way too easy for the Oscars' audience of luminaries and studio bigwigs, after clapping their hands to "Mighty River" and "This Is Me," and congratulating themselves on how woke they are, to go back to their offices and proceed with business as usual. And, as always, the creative artists and others who answer to these powerful people will be too full of gratitude for simply being there to kick up a fuss if they see unequal treatment or even harassment while working on their own big breaks. Hollywood is a large and old institution full of very powerful and deeply entrenched players. Changing it will not be easy.
McDormand knows all this. That's why her speech was so emotionally smart, and so wise. Her challenge offers a way that people who want real change in Hollywood could actually make it happen. She issued that challenge to an extremely rare audience--a roomful of people who have the clout to do it. For those who tell themselves or others that they care about diversity, but then don't ask for (or don't agree to) inclusion riders, we can rightfully ask: Why not?
Here's Frances McDormand's unforgettable acceptance speech: