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Moore and Redmayne: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Two Oscar winners from 2015: Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne
Moore and Redmayne: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Arts

A symbolic makeover

The Oscars get new diversity standards for the best picture category

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences suffered embarrassment in 2015 when critics pointed to a lack of diversity in film nominations and #OscarsSo­White started trending on social media. April Reign, the activist who started the hashtag, noted that the academy’s membership at the time was 92 percent white and 75 percent male.

In response to the criticism, the film trade association announced this summer it had inducted 819 new members, doubling the number of women and people from underrepresented ethnic groups. A more diverse group of nominators could result in a more diverse group of film nominees.

But the academy also decided to change the selection criteria for its best picture award. Starting in 2024, a film must meet at least two of four new diversity standards to be considered for the Oscars’ top prize.

The first criteria, or Standard A, requires a film to have a lead actor of nonwhite ethnicity or an ensemble cast with at least 30 percent of its members from two or more of the following groups: women, LGBT individuals, or people with a disability. The movie could also have a storyline that focused on one of those groups.

To fulfill Standard B, a film must have a certain level of diversity in its creative leadership. Standard C asks whether a studio offers paid internships to underrepresented groups, and Standard D promotes diversity in marketing and distribution.

For all the fanfare, the criteria won’t require sweeping changes of the film industry. Major studios can easily meet Standards C and D. Vanity Fair noted all of the best picture nominees in the last 15 years have satisfied either A or B.

“Without even mandating it, the industry is going toward diversity,” said Andrei Constantinescu, who owns a casting company in Dallas.

He recalled uncomfortable conversations from his early days in the business, when producers would ask that 90 percent or more of the extras on set be white “because if there’s too many people of color on screen, then the audience is distracted.” He believes things have changed for the better—now he gets asked for more diversity on set rather than less.

Jesse GrothOlson, an independent filmmaker who teaches cinema at Houston Baptist University, hopes some of his minority students will feel that the world wants to hear their stories.

“At best I see this as a way to initiate good trickle-down that will move standards at all levels of execution in the industry,” he said. “At worst, it could initiate a kind of industry overhaul that puts workers into positions for reasons that have nothing to do with their skills and everything to do with their sexual identity or racial makeup.”

Some worry the diversity initiative will harm the Oscars’ reputation for honoring the best in artistic achievement. In January, author Stephen King, a voting member of the academy, tweeted, “I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.” But moviemaking isn’t just an art form. It’s a business, and diversity is big business these days.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda and Nevis Productions

A scene from Hamilton.
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Nevis Productions

Arts

“Providential and timely”

A cast member of Hamilton says the groundbreaking musical is fit for our cultural moment

The hit musical Hamilton promotes inclusivity, democracy, and the power of youth to change the world. But to get tickets to its original Broadway run in 2015, you had to have money and connections. The hip-hop musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton sold out New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre just about every night its first year, and the cost of a seat on the secondary market averaged $350, according to Forbes

But now, thanks to Disney+, anyone with an internet-connected device can get an inexpensive front-row seat to see Hamilton. A performance featuring much of the show’s original Broadway cast debuted on the streaming platform on July 3.

The musical drew its popularity not just from the story but also the way it told it. Latino, African American, Asian American, and other ethnic minority actors played every role in the show except the villain, King George III.

“The cultural conversation that surrounded the show was important in terms of representation for people who look like me, who are told there are only certain types of roles you should play,” said Austin Smith, an African American and a member of the show’s original Broadway cast. Smith spent about a year in Hamilton as an ensemble member and understudy for the major roles of Aaron Burr and George Washington.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of the original Broadway show, based the musical on a biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Miranda’s adaptation does not gloss over the flaws of the Founding Fathers, including Hamilton’s infidelity, Burr’s egotism, or Thomas Jefferson’s defense of slavery. He makes it clear all of them could have achieved much more had they not succumbed to the temptation of sin along the way. (Hamilton is rated PG-13 for language and sexual references.) 

Yet Hamilton stays unashamedly patriotic, celebrating the strengths of the U.S. political system despite the flaws of the people who built it. It does that by emphasizing the creativity that followed the United States’ overthrow of British colonial rule. While the first act gives summaries and recaps of impor­tant Revolutionary War battles, the second act spends entire musical numbers on single Cabinet meetings at which Hamilton, Jefferson, and James Madison debated things like the central banking system or the best response to the French Revolution.

Smith is the son of a Baptist minister in Chicago and the grandson of a civil rights pioneer, J.C. Smith, an activist in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955. He called Hamilton’s release in the middle of nationwide revolts against police brutality and white supremacy a “providential, timely coincidence,” saying he thought it could “offer some sense of hope, as well, that revolution is fruitful, and the status quo is not always great for everybody.”

As a cast member, Smith’s advice to viewers was to watch it more than once—something the musical’s patrons on Broadway couldn’t easily do, but thanks to streaming and the internet, fans at home can.

—A version of this story appeared in the July 7 Muse roundup at wng.org

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Scott Allen

Michael Sherrill
Scott Allen

Arts

Inspired by a true story

Artist Michael Sherrill’s sculptures portray the pain and beauty of life

Sculptor Michael Sherrill’s studio in western North Carolina is tucked under trees, nestled a few yards from a small waterfall. The soft, cascading sound of the waterfall met the snap of a wood-burning fireplace as Sherrill poured green tea into stoneware mugs and described how nature and faith influence his art. 

Though the trees outside were bare, Sherrill is known for botanical sculptures mimicking the flora that fills the woods with warmer weather—magnolia blossoms, rhododendrons, and leafy oak branches. His art has appeared in galleries at the White House, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, and, most recently, the ASU Art Museum in Tempe, Ariz. Working with metal, clay, and glass, Sherrill says he “uses artifice to create a world that speaks to what is true.”

What is true? Sherrill, a Christian, creates art that reflects the natural world, the human condition, and the Creator. In his sculptures, though, those ideas are subtle. Sherrill, 65, doesn’t call himself a “Christian artist” but simply remarks, “I’m a maker of stuff and a lover of Jesus.” 

On a morning walk through the woods near his log cabin home in Bat Cave, Sherrill stopped to photograph a strange-looking mushroom. He often brings the outside world inside his studio, where branches and leaves hang from walls.

Those artifacts inspire Sherrill: His lifelike botanical sculptures are beautiful, yet appear scarred, bruised, and weather-worn. The imperfections give the pieces believability. They symbolize life continuing amid trauma. One of Sherrill’s favorites is Remnant—a blackened, dying oak branch that curves downward, its bark splitting and cracked. A cluster of withering leaves hangs from the end. 

I’m a maker of stuff and a lover of Jesus.

Yet, one small branch grows upward with green signs of new life. The title alludes to the remnant of Israel that God promised to save. “There was always a portion that would be saved,” says Sherrill. “There would be life.”

Not all of Sherrill’s artworks mimic nature. At a recent Smithsonian exhibition in Washington, D.C., a room displayed teapots Sherrill created over a series of years. Some contorted or twisted into fantastical shapes, and some whimsicslly seemed to fit in a luncheon of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter. Others, coated in 23-karat gold leaf, were molded into graceful arabesque gestures or elongated and twisted, like one dubbed “Jacob’s Ladder.” 

As a young boy Sherrill tore apart clocks, toys, anything he could get his hands on: His mother said nothing mechanical was safe from her son. But his inquisitiveness led him to understand how things worked: “I was always the one who fixed her sewing machine for her.”

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