Bafta Film Awards: Does current voting system need to change?

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Is it time to chuck rotten tomatoes at the Baftas?

“There’s definitely a problem,” said actor Daniel Kaluuya referring to the diversity row engulfing this year’s Bafta nominations (all shortlisted actors are white, all shortlisted directors are male).

“What is the problem?” I asked.

He wasn’t sure.

I think I might have a hunch.

The morning after my interview with Kaluuya was broadcast I received an email from a producer who self-identified as a “Bafta judge… immersed in diversity issues”.

He had a copy of Queen Slim, the film in which Kaluuya stars alongside fellow Brit Jodie Turner-Smith. The movie was eligible for this year’s awards but the producer hadn’t watched it.

“It’s true we get tons of DVDs and screeners and the fact is that Queen Slim is sitting on my desk unseen,” he said.

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British actors Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith star in Queen Slim

It wasn’t the only one. He hadn’t watched the majority of the 269 films in consideration for this year’s Baftas. His general strike rate is around a quarter of the films put forward.

On one hand that’s understandable. If you allotted an average of two hours per film, it would take 538 hours to watch the lot – or 65 working days. That’s a significant amount of time to put aside for a busy producer.

But on the other hand, it might be deemed unacceptable. If you can’t see all the eligible films, some may argue, you should become ineligible to vote because your opinion would inevitably be partial, biased and ill-informed.

His email exposes the shortcomings of Bafta’s award nominations process, which the academy leads us to believe is thorough and fair.

It states on its website that its membership – consisting of 6,500 “industry professionals and creatives from around the world” – decides “the nominations from hundreds of films”.

The clear implication being that those 6,500 members have actually watched the movies. That doesn’t appear to be the case in reality.

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There are members voting in the main categories who have seen only a fraction of the eligible films.

Take, for example, the Bafta voter who tweeted me recently saying she was “partly to blame” for this year’s line-up because work commitments “meant I saw v [sic] few films to vote in Bafta nominations. Feeling guilty”.

This lack of comprehensive rigour is a major structural problem that Kaluuya and others would like addressed. The playing field is far from level. The actor thought any movie in contention should be seen.

The current system leaves Bafta voters free to decide which of the eligible films they fancy seeing and which ones they will give a miss.

At this point, Bafta nominations become entirely arbitrary and it maybe explains why some critically-acclaimed films without a massive promotional budget – such as The Farewell, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Us – missed out.

Selecting what to watch becomes a personal decision based on taste and prejudice.

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The producer who emailed me wrote about having “to make choices”.

In the case of Queen Slim, he lamented that it only opened in the UK after the Bafta voting period ended, although he had it sitting there on his desk ready to watch.

(A late release date hasn’t hampered Parasite, which still hasn’t opened in the UK but is nominated for best film, and best director – but the fact none of the actors got a nod is bemusing.)

He looked towards American reviewers for a steer and discovered they liked it “but… it wasn’t in the top area of responses, for example, 82% on Rotten Tomatoes.

“So unfortunately, I never got to it.”

It is a decision that might strike some as slightly odd. After all, Bafta says its purpose is to support British film and talent.

Kaluuya is certainly that, as Bafta knows: It recognised him as a rising star in 2018. His co-star in Queen Slim is Jodie Turner-Smith, a breakthrough British actress.

It is also worth mentioning that Kaluuya, Tuner-Smith and the film’s debutant director Melina Matsoukas, are all black which, for a producer “immersed in diversity issues in the industry”, might have prompted him to give the film a chance.

Amanda Berry, Bafta’s chief executive, appears to be aware that her members are not seeing all the films, which obviously affects the nominations.

I asked her why she thought the British actress Cynthia Erivo had not been shortlisted for her performance in Harriet (Erivo is nominated for an Oscar, making her the only non-white actor to make the Academy’s shortlists in 2020).

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Cynthia Erivo didn’t make the Bafta shortlist for playing slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman

Berry said she thought it was because the film wasn’t very high-profile when it came out in the UK, and that a lot of her members didn’t know about it and hadn’t seen it.

Erivo apparently didn’t stand a chance even though, only last year, Bafta recognised her as a rising star.

The assumption should be that Bafta voters are knowledgeable and curious and above being swayed by the big movies with the big stars and the big marketing budgets. The implication from Berry suggests otherwise.

Add to that the reality that not all the eligible films are necessarily even watched and you end up with what many, including Amanda Berry, have described as a disappointing 2020 Bafta nominations line-up.

One which has failed to acknowledge the breadth, depth, and diversity of the talent showcased in the 269 films put forward for consideration in the reasonable expectation of a fair competition.

Maybe it’s #TimesUp for the current voting system?