Despite “Parasite” win, Oscars have a long way to go to becoming diverse

Courtesy of Creative Commons

Courtesy of Creative Commons

Alex Holmes

By now, the scenario sounds alarmingly familiar: no actors of color nominated for acting awards and an all-male slate of Best Director nominees at the Academy Awards. But that scenario is a thing of the past, right? After the 2015 and 2016 ceremonies, which played that out to a tee, the #OscarsSoWhite movement forced the Academy to do something about the lack of diversity that has been systemic throughout their 90+ year existence. More actors of color and women were added to the Academy’s ranks than ever before. And the 2017, 2018, and 2019 shows were much more diverse than in previous years. Problem solved, right? Not quite.

Unfortunately, as this year’s nominations proved, it’s not that simple. Out of the twenty acting nominees, only one was not white. “Parasite”, a South Korean mind-bender of a film that won four Oscars, including best picture, received no acting nominations despite critically acclaimed performances. And yet again, no women were nominated for Best Director. To make matters worse, the best picture category, which has the most slots of any category, was stuffed to the brim with stories about straight white men. Only one out of nine nominees was a story about and made by women. 

While the change that sprouted out of #OscarsSoWhite was certainly a good step forward, when viewed holistically, it was minimal progress at best. Here was the Academy’s make-up before 2015: 92 percent white and 75 percent male. Now: 84 percent white and 68 percent male. The bar wasn’t exactly high in the first place. The people who nominate and vote for the best movies of the year are still overwhelmingly white and male (a bit like me).

The numbers alone don’t look great, but something that might be even more troubling is that the one acting nominee of color this year is Cynthia Erivo, who played Harriet Tubman in the film “Harriet”. Nothing against her or that film, but it’s a telling sign of the types of performances the Academy thinks people of color can play when the only nomination is for a Black woman playing a slave. Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for playing a slave in 2013’s “12 Years a Slave”, shamefully wasn’t nominated for her more challenging, complex and astonishing dual performance in this year’s “Us”. 

The Academy really has two issues: first, it doesn’t nominate enough people of color or women, and second, the people it does nominate are pigeonholed into specific roles that the Academy is comfortable seeing them in. Black people can play slaves, women can play moms and wives (and God forbid they direct a movie). 

The first step in trying to fix the broken system is recognizing that the Oscars don’t actually represent the best movies of the year. Every now and then, the films they nominate do align with the best movies of that year, but the Academy is heavily biased against genre films and independent movies (along with their racial and gender biases). One of the primary reasons is that certain movies are labeled as “Oscar bait” or “Oscar-worthy films” before they’re even released. A Martin Scorsese movie starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, about the mob? Oscar-worthy. A World War I epic made to look as though it was shot in one take that depicts the brutality of the battlefield from an Oscar-winning director? Oscar-worthy. I love both of those movies (“The Irishman” and “1917”, respectively), but it’s not fair to smaller or less white-male movies that those two films are set up for Oscar glory from the outset.

Simply put, the Academy is too self-conscious. They’re always trying to please everyone and piss off no one, which results in them nearly always picking the more traditional, more boring, less diverse film. Their preferential ballot system, used to choose the best picture winner, means that the movie that wins the industry’s top prize is more often than not a generally liked film instead of a passionately loved one. That’s how you get winners like “Green Book”, “The Shape of Water”, and “Spotlight” (to name a few recent ones). “Parasite’s” win this year is historic for being the first non-English language film to win the top prize, but it’s the exception to the rule. Movies that aren’t considered “Oscar-worthy” usually have a harder time, and those tend to be the ones starring non-white people and women. 

In short, the Oscars need to get over themselves. In case you hadn’t realized, they don’t matter in terms of artistic quality. For years, they have consistently picked movies that baffled critics, audiences, and filmmakers alike in their audacity and sheer lack of foresight. I’m talking about movies like “Driving Miss Daisy” winning instead of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”, “Shakespeare in Love” winning over “Saving Private Ryan”, and last year’s “Green Book” triumphing over “Roma”. The Oscars have a history of making bone-headed decisions that tend not to age well.

So what I’m proposing is that maybe the Academy should go out of its way to honor diversity. They’ve gone out of their way for 90 years to make sure that diverse films are not recognized, so it’s about time for a change. You might say that then the Oscars wouldn’t represent the best in the business. Well, they already don’t. And I’m not saying to go too far out of their way to do this. I’m willing to bet that many of the actors who didn’t make the cut who were the sixth or seventh choices were people of color. Who says there can only be five great performances each year? Maybe that’s the solution: the Academy should expand the number of slots for each category. Some years there will be ten great performances; others, maybe only four. 

Now, the reason this all matters is because, while the Oscars don’t mean a thing artistically, they do mean something for a person’s career. The Oscars mean recognition, notoriety, money, and, most importantly, opportunity. Last year saw a record number of women directors who cracked the 100 highest-grossing films of the year. That record was 10.6 percent. In Hollywood, for women, and especially women of color, opportunity is the most valuable currency. 

Hollywood has been—and still is—run by white men, meaning it will take a lot more than adding a few diverse voters to the Academy. It will take a purposeful move towards including nonwhite people and women in the Oscars conversation. Yes, a lot of people will likely get mad. But then again, with the Oscars, aren’t they always? •