Last night’s Academy Awards ended on a high note with South Korean film director Bong Joon-ho, the mastermind behind Parasite, one of 2019's most acclaimed films, making history by snagging the coveted honor of Best Picture. The Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, where the annual event is held, erupted with applause as the winner was announced by Jane Fonda, with people on every level of the auditorium — from the folks way up high in the balcony to the A-listers on the ground floor — excitedly rising to their feet to praise Bong.
Bong’s win was historic because Parasite was the first foreign-language film to ever be awarded Best Picture. Ultimately, Bong would take home four trophies, including for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Film. But amid the palpable joy in the theater over Bong’s dark comedy being canonized in Oscars history was the shocking feeling that the Academy had done what it was supposed to do: reward a movie that was actually good.
In recent years, the Academy has dealt with dwindling ratings, a cultural shift as people opt to stay in and watch something streaming rather than fork out money to go to the nearest multiplex, and a chorus of marginalized voices who are fed up with the organization’s apparent unwillingness to recognize people of color for the film industry’s top awards. All of these elements have seemingly shaken the long-standing arbiter of cinematic greatness. Additionally, there’s the sneaking suspicion that the show — no longer in possession of its viselike grip on Hollywood, and cinema more broadly, as the be-all, end-all of critical acclaim — knows that its position within the world of entertainment is tenuous. A comment Bong made to Vulture last year is telling in this regard: “The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.”
Bong’s not-so-subtle dig at the Oscars is important because it signaled that there are other, perhaps even more significant accolades that a filmmaker may hope to acquire. Sunday night’s show also made clear that the Academy needed Bong’s presence at the ceremony way more than he needed those four golden statues, though the underlying message that American films aren’t the only ones worthy of being exalted cannot be overstated. Beyond Bong’s big sweep of some of the most popular categories is the realization that the Academy is trying, possibly as hard as any institution with a deep history of racism and exclusionary practices can, to be more aware of its backsliding when it comes to honoring people of color and women at the annual event. But is recognizing that you have a problem enough if you’re not making meaningful strides to remedy the issue?
“Back in 1929, there were no black acting nominees,” said Steve Martin onstage while bantering with fellow comedian Chris Rock. “And now in 2020, we got one,” Rock said, referring to Cynthia Erivo, the only person of color nominated in the acting categories. There was another joke about how Erivo, who was up for Best Actress for her performance in the titular role of Harriet, “did such a great job in Harriet of hiding black people that the Academy got her to hide all the black nominees.” The comedians continued riffing on some of the most contentious subjects about this year's show, including how women directors were snubbed. "So many great directors nominated this year, but there was something missing,” Martin said. "Vaginas?" Rock answered. "Yeah, that's it." (Even Natalie Portman, an Oscar winner herself, hit back at the Academy’s continual reluctance to nominate women directors by honoring several of them by embroidering their names on her Dior cape.)
The jokes are funny until you remember that the Academy is very much aware of and essentially laughing about a systemic problem.
Is recognizing that you have a problem enough if you’re not making meaningful strides to remedy the issue?
Inside the Dolby, usually during commercial breaks for the live broadcast, industry people and nonindustry invitees would pop out of their seats in the auditorium and mill about the different levels of the venue while enjoying free alcohol and refreshments. Though the venue was mostly occupied by white people who would enthusiastically clap and cheer when Parasite or Bong were called to the stage, views on how the Academy should navigate diversity were varied.
“Being inclusive is a very good thing but to use it as a standing point for the work … I don’t necessarily agree with that,” said Scott Michaels, 57, a consultant who briefly worked with Quentin Tarantino on research about the Manson murders for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. “I do agree with diversity, of course, but I do think work is stand-alone,” Michaels told BuzzFeed News when asked about the overrepresentation of white performers in the acting categories this year. “I’m a big believer in the work stands for the work and merit is merit. To base merit on demographic I don’t think is right.”
Shau Chang, who worked with clients associated with Fuyao Glass, the main subject in American Factory, the Barack and Michelle Obama–produced Netflix documentary that won the Best Documentary award, told BuzzFeed News that she didn’t “pay a lot of attention” to the controversy surrounding the acting nominations but maintained that “at the end of the day, diversity is important.” Chang added that she has faith the Academy will overcome its blind spots and consistently be more representative of diverse perspectives in the future.
At the top of the show, the ceremony opened with a performance from Janelle Monáe, who came out clad in a Mister Rogers getup. While Monáe’s electrifying performance was a thrilling way to begin the evening, and although she rightly called out the Academy for being “so white,” it was the beginning of what Vulture’s E. Alex Jung perfectly characterized as the Oscars “trying so hard to prove they have friends of color lmao.” Monáe proudly spoke into the mic about being black and queer and was soon after joined onstage by Pose actor Billy Porter.
The overall inclusion was great, but it certainly felt like something strategic the Academy was doing in order to quell the criticisms it’d faced leading up to the show. In what seemed like an attempt to pander to women, the Oscars united Brie Larson, Gal Gadot, and Sigourney Weaver — all of whom have played superheroes on the big screen — to announce the depressing fact that Eímear Noone would be the first woman to conduct the orchestra during the show, but only for the orchestra’s rendition of the nominated film scores. The energy of these shoehorned moments felt very much like the powers that be really wanting the audience to know brown faces and women are still welcome to the party, even though only one person of color was nominated within the acting categories, and no women directors were nominated at all. And even still, with a few exceptions such as Hair Love taking home Best Animated Short Film, Kazu Hiro’s makeup and hairstyling award, and the trophies Bong snatched up, most winners of the night looked no different than they have since the Oscars began in the late 1920s.
“I think that we send a very clear message to people of color that you're not welcome here,” said Joaquin Phoenix earlier this month at the BAFTAs, the UK’s equivalent to the Academy Awards, during a well-timed speech that called out the organization’s clear racial bias against nominating actors of color. “I think that's the message we're sending to people who have contributed so much to our medium and our industry and in ways that we benefit from.” Phoenix, who won Best Actor at Sunday’s Oscar ceremony and took up the opportunity to call out various injustices during his speech, also touched on an important point as far as who can solve the problems that stem from systemic oppression: The people who created the unfair system should be the ones tasked with dismantling it.
In other words, this is a problem that only the Oscars can solve — though Phoenix’s powerful speech was at a different ceremony, the sentiment still applies — and it’s one that will need to be rectified swiftly if the show wants to continue being an important part of the conversation around cinema. In recent years, the Academy has demonstrated that it’s slowly moving in a direction where the art honored is more representative of the world we live in, and like most bad habits, it seems like the organization experienced a major relapse this year, falling back on its old, comfortable ways. But if the reception to Bong’s tremendously successful sweep is anything to go by, the Academy should do its best to continue riding this wave of joy and celebration into the future so that it’s not looked upon as only a relic of cinema’s past achievements and former glory — but as a vessel for highlighting groundbreaking and wondrous stories for a new generation of film lovers. ●