On Sunday night, “Parasite” made history, becoming the first non-English-language film to win best picture at the Academy Awards. In addition to winning awards for best screenplay, best director and best international picture, the film also became the first South Korean movie to win an Oscar. These historic wins feel especially significant in a year when, once again, the Oscars have been called out for a lack of diversity in terms of race and gender. It feels like a step forward. But if there’s anything that we’ve learned post-#OscarsSoWhite, it’s that one well-deserved win for a film by or featuring underrepresented people does not a revolution make.
We all know that the Oscars have a diversity problem. There’s a long list of damning statistics to rattle off that prove it’s true. For example: This year, women received 30 percent of non-acting nominations (56 women nominees versus 130 men), an increase from just 25 percent in 2019. No women were nominated in the directing category. Out of the 20 actors and actresses nominated for their performances this year, only one is a person of color. Meanwhile, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the body of filmmakers who nominate and vote for Oscar winners) is 84 percent white and 68 percent male, even after a 2016 initiative to double the number of members of color and women by this year. The average age of members of the academy is 60 to 63.
The function of these stats, and of the countless ongoing studies and reports breaking down the state of representation in Hollywood, is to help make sense of things, to distill the nebulous “problem” of diversity into something our minds can process and quantify. They tell us, ultimately, progress is happening; it’s just happening really, really slowly.
But tracking progress can be distracting. It muddles a singular point that isn’t talked about enough: The diversity problem has never been just about numbers. It’s about perspective, bias, empathy and imagination.
This awards season, in particular, feels especially contentious given the quality of the films and performances made in 2019. The academy has been criticized for failing to recognize actors like Jennifer Lopez, Lupita Nyong’o, Alfre Woodard and Awkwafina in the major acting categories. People have also been especially vocal about the complete shutout of female directors including Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang, Lorene Scafaria, Marielle Heller and Alma Har’el.
On Jan. 14, author Stephen King waded into the murky waters of the diversity and inclusion debate after the backlash over the nominations.
“As a writer, I am allowed to nominate in just 3 categories: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Screenplay,” he tweeted: “For me, the diversity issue — as it applies to individual actors and directors, anyway — did not come up. That said I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.”
The novelist was promptly called out across Twitter for his comments (which he later attempted to clarify), with many arguing that King had implied diversity in the movie industry and quality filmmaking are, somehow, mutually exclusive.
“If art and awards are based off quality, then who or what is defining the quality? We all don’t have an equal share in deciding this, statistically or institutionally,” Black feminist writer Morgan Jerkins tweeted. “And if there is inequity at its base, then how does it not influence the results?”
Sasha Stone, an awards analyst for Awards Daily who has been writing about film since 1999, said that all blame shouldn’t necessarily be put on the academy.
“Especially this year when, as you can see, the race was pretty much set long before ballots were in hand,” Stone said in an email. “The Golden Globes shut out women too and they are 50% female and voters from all over the world. The DGA shut out women (they are roughly 20% female), as did SAG in the ensemble category and BAFTA. What happened this year was that the time frame was cut in half almost and there was just no time to build any kind of consensus.”
But then there are things like The Hollywood Reporter’s infamous annual “Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot,” where an anonymous academy voter said this about complaints that Lopez was snubbed for her “Hustlers” performance, “Everyone is going on about the ‘snub’ of J.Lo — fuck J.Lo. I’m allergic to that movie. It isn’t a movie about ‘empowering’ women; it’s a movie about slipping asshole men roofies and fucking jacking them.”
Another anonymous voter declared, “Parasite is beautifully done, but … I don’t think foreign films should be nominated with regular films.” (Best Picture nominee “1917,” produced in the U.K., is also a “foreign film.”)
These takes may be shocking for some, but to Clayton Davis, editor and owner of AwardsCircuit.com, they are par for the course.
“That old-school academy is still in there, they’re still stubborn, and they’re just watching their friends’ movies, or they’re giving their ballot to their secretary because they don’t want to be bothered,” Davis said. “And that’s few, but they’re still there and they still have a little bit of an impact.”
Davis, who has been writing about film and the annual race to the Oscars for almost 20 years, said there has always been consistency in the types of films and performances by people of color the Oscars choose to recognize (see: maids and slaves). In recent years, genre outliers like “Black Panther” and “Get Out” have gotten nominations, but overall there’s a tendency to only recognize films featuring or made by Black people that specifically focus on race and racism.
“I think all of us as a whole don’t acknowledge what a miracle it was that Jordan Peele won best original screenplay for ‘Get Out.’ And that is a horror film, but it is contested as a horror film,” Davis said.
“People don’t see it as horror. They’re like, ‘No, this is a social examination of Blacks in America,’ blah blah. And that’s how it got sold to the academy by Universal, and it was a brilliant move because if they said, ‘Come see the scariest movie of the year,’ I don’t think they’d give it two looks,” Davis added.
Recognizing more films made by and featuring people of color and women isn’t about meeting a diversity quota. It’s about awarding the most innovative films that are progressing the cinematic art form and are providing a poignant record of today’s culture. It just so happens that in 2019, many of those films were made by people who aren’t white and male.
Kali Gross, a professor of African American studies at Rutgers University, points out that there is a long history of Black people challenging the Oscars but also imagining new ways to record and honor film. In her mind, that is also part of the way forward.
“The Oscars are basically controlled by a small group of white people in Hollywood who are claiming to be assessing the best of all film even though we know it’s clearly exclusionary and biased,” Gross said. “What we should do is actually show them the right way to do it. By creating our own awards that actually does examine all of the same films using the same criteria.”
The NAACP Image Awards, the African American Film Critics Association and the Women in Film organization have been taking this approach for years. Prior to the Oscars, “Honey Boy” director Alma Har’el tweeted about the #GiveHerABreak campaign, a livestream of the awards show with ad breaks dedicated to shining a light on female directors who failed to gain recognition from the academy. These initiatives are not just about numbers, but about working toward a true film community, one in which stereotypes, tropes and easy narratives have no place.
We can and absolutely should celebrate “Parasite” winning so many big awards, while also acknowledging the fact that the film conspicuously garnered zero acting nominations. This follows a pattern of the Academy Awards failing to recognize Asian performances, falling into the Western tendency to view Asian characters as types rather than fully realized people.
During his acceptance speech for best director, Bong Joon Ho said, “When I was young and studying cinema, there was a saying that I carved deep into my heart, which is, the most personal is the most creative.” He was quoting Martin Scorsese at that moment, prompting a standing ovation for Scorsese who looked on, clearly moved. It was a moment of true filmic connection, an example of how cinema, when all the glitz and glamour is gone, is about seeing human beings for who and what they are. This, then, is what the Oscars need to try to capture ― not numbers, not quotas, not painfully self-aware jokes about “diversity” at every show, which do nothing to actually fix the problem.
The Oscars are not the be-all and end-all. Perhaps they once were, when they were designed specifically to celebrate and honor powerful white men. But, for better or worse, these awards are still regarded by many in the industry as emblematic of the highest standard of film. In turn, they need to not only be held to that standard, but should also be encouraged constantly to raise the bar ― no matter how uncomfortable things get.