Regular contributor Noel Yaxley argues that the Academy Awards have taken on a far more sinister tone which poses a serious threat to free expression and creativity.

Actors love attention. The awards season offers them the perfect opportunity to get together and bask in the glory and sycophantic excess of their fellow actors. They love nothing more than giving acceptance speeches. Normally after a short gushing speech thanking just about everyone they know or have ever met, it's almost inevitable that someone will proceed to rant about the latest social justice issue. The Oscars has always been the award show that has exhibited the worst of this shameless political grandstanding. Through righteous indignation masquerading as legitimate political thought, Hollywoods A-list elite can't seem to resist making an awards show all about themselves. Whether it's Patricia Arquette's call for equal pay or Leonardo DiCaprio's hypocritical lecture on global warming, there's always been a risible attempt at sincerity with the Oscars. Most of this behaviour can be dismissed as petty narcissistic virtue-signalling and after a few rants from those of us who write about this sort of thing, quickly forgotten about.

This time however, the Academy Awards have taken on a far more sinister tone and it now poses a serious threat to free expression and creativity. On Tuesday, the Academy made the announcement that from 2024, in order to be eligible to be nominated for the best picture category, a number of targets must be met. After years of backlash from the 'OscarsSoWhite' hashtag crowd, Academy chiefs have drawn up new 'representation and inclusion' rules. In a few years time, films hoping to win the award will have to hire more black, female, LGBT or disabled cast and crew or address the themes that affect these minority communities. When the 96th Oscars rolls around in 2025, films vying for the most sought after statue in Hollywood must meet certain targets. In other words, before being accepted by the Academy, the film must be sufficiently 'diverse'.

Under complex rules, in order to qualify for the best picture category, films will have to meet two of four criteria. These are on-screen representation, creative leadership, internships/apprenticeships and audience development. The categories are confusing but the highlights stipulate that at least one lead actor or supporting actor in the film must be from an ethnic minority group.  At least thirty per cent of smaller roles must be played by women, LGBT ethnic minority or disabled people. Even those involved in marketing must be women or from a minority group. Fail to do so and you can throw that new awards cabinet in the bin.

Imposing an arbitrary racial quota on hiring practices used to be known as racist. But in an age of enforced equality has been renamed positive discrimination. Think I am over reacting? Last year Oxford University announced for the first time in its near thousand year existence it would admit students from 'disadvantaged' backgrounds on the basis of lower grades. Or take the BBC's promise to ensure 20 per cent of its workforce come from 'underrepresented' communities. When did it become illiberal to hire on merit? The comedian Tim Young summed it up succinctly when he said "minority filmmakers will be left wondering if their movie was actually good or the Academy simply had a box to check."

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This is nothing more than an extremely powerful and influential institution pulling the strings and dictating what directors can and cannot do. Borderline reminiscent of the Stalinist 'purges' where thousands of writers and intellectuals were imprisoned for 'contradicting soviet ideology', Hollywood will effectively dictate what stories can and cannot be told.

Seeing as a memorable film is one that tells a powerful story, normally one of struggle, sacrifice and redemption, this will force directors to tell the progressive politically correct story, not the one they necessarily want to tell. This is an outright attempt to censor free expression and art. Kirstie Alley said it best when she claimed the diversity rules were akin to "telling Picasso what had to be in his paintings." It is hard to disagree.

Art defines who we are. But more than that, it is an expression of who we were. Ever since the dawn of civilisation, we have used tools to express ideas that transcend the limits of our experience. This is why we tell stories, as what we create outlasts our short lives. It is because of these stories we are able to explore our deepest desires and our darkest fears. These stories thrill us, move us with tales of courage, determination, vengeance and anger. Cinema can impart wisdom, knowledge and in the very next breath whisk you away to far off worlds. Through stories of love and friendship or conflict and hate, they have the ability to make us laugh or cry. Stories create heroes, they create villains. They show us the best and worst of humanity or what it means to be human. It can do all this because it is free. Free to be creative, challenging, thought provoking and controversial. It is the artistic freedom that makes cinema truly come alive.

If we are not careful it will not stay this way. I fear this act of intolerant authoritarianism will not be the end of it. What Hollywood have done is set a dangerous precedent. It always starts this way. Once you acquiesce to the social justice crowd, the litany of offended voices will grow louder. The changes will get bigger. By making an edit here, or a cut there, they will continue to appease and placate the mob, but they will still want more. Then it will be too late. We will be left with a dead sterile world where creativity and free expression are gone. In an anaemic effort to avoid offence we will rip the heart out of this wonderful medium. If we do not challenge this and continue to pander to progressive ideology we will strip the fun and individuality out of everything we love.

Now I ask you what's more important: artistic freedom or the fear of offence?

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