Academy of Motion Pictures mum on how Jews fit into new inclusion standards

Rules taking effect for next year’s Best Picture award aim to encourage diversity in film industry, raising questions and criticism

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

An Oscars statue outside the Dolby Theatre for the 87th Academy Awards in Los Angeles on February 21, 2015. (Matt Sayles/Invision/AP, File)
An Oscars statue outside the Dolby Theatre for the 87th Academy Awards in Los Angeles on February 21, 2015. (Matt Sayles/Invision/AP, File)

The organization that awards the Oscars has refused to comment on whether Jews can count as an under-represented group under its new inclusion standards that aim to boost diversity in Hollywood.

Jews have long had a significant presence in the American entertainment industry, but the new standards raise questions about on-screen representation and the specifics of their implementation and eligibility for awards: For instance, will a Holocaust film count as a movie about an ethnic group? Can Hasidic Jews be considered a minority?

The issue comes as non-Jewish actors playing Jewish characters on screen has repeatedly sparked debate. Controversy erupted this week over the non-Jewish actor Bradley Cooper using a prosthetic nose in his portrayal of the Jewish composer Leonard Bernstein (Bernstein’s family has since brushed this off).

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ new representation and inclusion standards will go into effect for the Best Picture award for the first time at next year’s awards ceremony. The academy announced the standards in 2020, as critics decried a lack of diversity in the Academy and its award recipients.

The new rules require films to meet two out of four standards for eligibility. One of the standards requires “on-screen representation, themes and narratives” that represent minority groups, and another stipulates that a film’s “creative leadership and project team” must be inclusive.

The guidelines list a number of “underrepresented racial or ethnic groups” that qualify, including Asian, Black, Middle Eastern, Indigenous and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders. If a film has a lead or significant supporting actor from one of those groups, it meets one of the four standards for Best Picture eligibility.

A film can also meet the standard if a significant portion of the supporting cast is made up of a racial or ethnic group, women, LGBTQ+ individuals, or people with cognitive or physical disabilities; or if a main storyline centers on one of those groups.

If a certain number of a film’s leadership or crew belong to one of the listed under-represented groups, the movie meets another one of the four standards.

The rules include a category for “other under-represented race or ethnicity,” but the Academy declined to comment on whether Jews could fall into that category, or whether Israelis will count as Middle Eastern.

The Academy’s silence opens up questions about how the awards could play out for Jewish participants. Does a film about the Holocaust count as a main storyline about a “racial or ethnic group”? What about Jews of color? Do Hasidic Jews count as an under-represented group? Will Mizrahi Jews count as Middle Eastern? What if a non-Jew plays a persecuted, religious Jewish character? Does a film starring Gal Gadot or Shira Haas check off the “Middle Eastern lead actor” box?

Harrison Ford presents the award for best picture at the Oscars, March 12, 2023, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP/Chris Pizzello)

The final two standards in the inclusion rules require films to provide industry access and opportunities to under-represented groups, or involve the groups in audience development. A film could be eligible for Best Picture by meeting those two off-screen requirements, sidestepping the requirements for a diverse cast, storyline or leadership team.

The Academy’s new standards only apply to the Best Picture category and will go into effect for the 96th Oscars in March 2024. The requirements were seen as a historic shift for the Academy, which had been harshly criticized in recent years for its overwhelmingly white membership and award recipients.

The Academy says the standards aim “to encourage equitable representation on and off screen to better reflect the diverse global population.” It has also opened a platform for comments on the inclusion standards, including which groups should be represented.

The inclusion standards have sparked criticism in the run-up to the awards.

David Baddiel, a UK comedian and activist against antisemitism, decried the Oscars standards for omitting Jews. Baddiel’s 2021 book “Jews Don’t Count” argued that Jews are not considered a minority in progressive spaces that are dedicated to combating discrimination, including in the film industry.

“Jews are not considered, by those who would consider themselves the guardians of identity morality, a real minority who suffer real racism,” Baddiel said in response to the inclusion standards. “There is a deeper reluctance to include Jews in what might be called the positive aspects of identity politics, that is, drives towards representation and inclusion. Because part of the myth of Jewish power is a notion that Jews are over-represented in certain spheres, one of which is show business.”

“So by using the phrase under-represented, the Academy is [saying] in effect, we are helping certain minorities but not others, others we have deemed not in need of it,” Baddiel told The Times of Israel. “Meanwhile, in actual fact, we live in a time where Jews — certainly ones played by Jews — are not often represented on film.”

Other critics have pointed out that previous Best Picture winners such as “Schindler’s List” and “The Godfather” would not likely meet the standards.

Veteran actor Richard Dreyfuss, who won an academy award for Best Actor for 1977’s “The Goodbye Girl,” told PBS that the inclusion standards “make me vomit.”

“It’s an art and no one should be telling me as an artist that I have to give in to the latest, most current idea of what morality is,” said Dreyfuss, a Jewish actor who starred in Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

“Is someone else being told that if they’re not Jewish, they shouldn’t play the Merchant of Venice? Are we crazy? Do we not know that art is art? This is so patronizing,” he said.

The inclusion standards tie into a larger debate about Jewish representation in media, as non-Jewish actors playing Jews have repeatedly sparked debate. Many have pointed out that while casting directors are becoming more careful not to miscast minority roles — relating not just to race but disability, sexual orientation and more — Jewish characters are still regularly, if not predominantly, played by non-Jews.

Bradley Cooper plays Jewish composer Leonard Bernstein in the 2023 biopic ‘Maestro.’ (YouTube screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

One recent case involves the non-Jewish actor Bradley Cooper, who stars in the upcoming film “Maestro” about the Jewish composer Leonard Bernstein. Some critics said Cooper’s use of a prosthetic nose in the role leaned into antisemitic stereotypes. Bernstein’s family has rejected the criticism, saying he indeed “had a nice, big nose” and noting that Cooper, who directed the film, had included them fully in the process.

Non-Jewish actors also played J. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein, who were Jews, in Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.”

After the non-Jewish actress Kathryn Han was cast as the outspoken Jewish comedy pioneer Joan Rivers in 2021, in a series that was eventually dropped, comedian Sarah Silverman berated the casting decision.

“There’s this long tradition of non-Jews playing Jews, and not just playing people who happen to be Jewish, but people whose Jewishness is their whole being,” Silverman said. “One could argue, for instance, that a gentile playing Joan Rivers correctly would be doing what is actually called ‘Jewface.’”

The casting of the non-Jewish actress Helen Mirren as Golda Meir, Israel’s only female prime minister, in an upcoming film drew both criticism and praise.

The debate about Jewish representation has also extended to TV and theater in both the US and the UK.

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