An Oscar statue is on display during the Academy Awards Nominations Announcement at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, California. Picture: AFP
An Oscar statue is on display during the Academy Awards Nominations Announcement at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, California. Picture: AFP

LOS ANGELES — Following an outcry over the all-white roster of actors nominated for this year’s Oscars, the president of the film academy said on Monday she was heartbroken by the lack of diversity and working to implement change.

"This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes," Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said in a statement.

Ms Isaacs said that while it was important to acknowledge the work of the actors nominated for the awards being given out on February 28, she was "both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion".

On Monday, filmmaker Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett Smith said they would boycott the Oscars ceremony because of the all-white slate of actors. Their nomination last week set social media abuzz with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.

Ms Isaacs, who is black, has pushed for more diversity in the Academy’s ranks since her election in 2013. But she acknowledged in her statement that "change is not coming as fast as we would like".

"We need to do more, and better and more quickly," she said. "In the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was about recruiting younger members to stay vital and relevant. In 2016, the mandate is inclusion in all of its facets: gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation."

The Academy has about 6,000 members, all of whom work in the film industry and are elected by their peers for life.

According to a 2012 study by the Los Angeles Times, nearly 94% of the Academy voters are white and mostly male. The Times found that blacks account for 2% of the Academy and Latinos are less than 2%. Oscar voters have a median age of 62, the Times study showed, and people younger than 50 constitute 14% of the membership.

In announcing he would snub the Oscars ceremony, Mr Lee said in a message on Instagram that he could not support the "lily white" awards show.

"How is it possible for the second consecutive year all 20 contenders under the actor category are white? And let’s not even get into the other branches. 40 white actors in two years and no flava at all. We can’t act?!" Mr Lee said in his open letter to the president and board of governors of the Academy Awards.

Mr Lee, who won an Oscar last year for his lifetime achievements as a filmmaker and actor, blamed the executives who run Hollywood studios for the absence of minorities in Oscar-contending roles.

"People, the truth is we ain’t in those rooms and until minorities are, the Oscar nominees will remain lily white," wrote Mr Lee, who is well known for his outspoken comments.

He suggested that Hollywood follow the lead of the National Football League, which requires that minorities be interviewed for head coach and senior executive positions when those are being filled.

"It’s worth the effort or it will be the same old hi-jinks," said Mr Lee, whose post was accompanied by a photo of Martin Luther King Jr, on the US holiday honouring the slain civil rights leader.

Among those overlooked for an Oscar nomination this year were Idris Elba, who earned rave reviews for his role as an African warlord in "Beasts of No Nation"; Will Smith for the sports drama "Concussion" and Michael B Jordan for the "Rocky" sequel "Creed". The director of critically acclaimed "Straight Outta Compton," a biopic about the rap group NWA, was also snubbed.

Jada Pinkett Smith, whose husband is Will Smith, said in a video message on Facebook that she would not attend the Oscars, out of principle.

"Begging for acknowledgement or even asking diminishes dignity and diminishes power, and we are a dignified people and powerful."

Last year, the Academy also came in for heavy criticism over the lack of diversity among the Oscar winners.

AFP