The Issue with the Oscars

Photo caption: Lupita Nyong’o as Red/Adelaide in Us, Greta Gerwig’s film Little Women, and Halle Berry as Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball. So far, Halle Berry has been the only black woman to win an Oscar for “Best Actress,” while Gerwig and Nyong’o are believed to have been snubbed for a 2020 Oscar nomination. Images via Universal Pictures, Sony Pictures, and Lionsgate.

In the past, the Oscars have lacked what many would consider an element of diversity and inclusion. A total of five women have been nominated for Best Director in the entire history of the awards and only one has won. Since 1929, only 6.4% of Oscar nominees were non-white. Film buffs and normal viewers alike are able to detect the pattern that has been present in this 92-year-old award ceremony since the beginning: The Oscars have a history of snubbing and overlooking some very talented female creators and creators of color, and viewers are losing patience.

Franklin Film and Lit teacher Allison Smith says that the Oscars have had many opportunities to change the way they decide their nominations, but continue on the path of exclusion. Smith says, “I think that the Oscars have demonstrated that they are not at a stage, institutionally, where they can be trusted to nominate or award films and industry professionals that represent the wide range of racial and cultural diversity within the industry.” After years of opportunity for growth, the awards ceremony seems to be dipping in popularity.

When it comes down to the mechanics of how creators are actually nominated for and win awards, it is important to understand how the system works. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, known more commonly as the Academy, is made up of about 7,000 members. Filmmakers and film professionals either go through a tough application process or are invited to join the Academy, and those are the people who are allowed a vote in deciding the nominations and final awards. The Academy as a whole is divided into 17 branches, for actors, directors, editors, and so on. Here’s where it gets tricky. The nominations for each category are decided by the members of its corresponding branch. For example, only sound editors can nominate a creator for the “Best Sound Editing” award, with “Best Picture” nominations being the only exception to this rule. After this list of nominations is compiled by the catagory’s experts, new ballots are sent out to every Academy member for final voting. With this information, viewers realize that only other directors, actors, cinematographers, etc. are to blame for snubs and controversy within their own category. This does not account for the final winners in each category, as all active Academy members are allowed to vote in whichever category they please (though they are discouraged from voting for those areas in which they lack expertise).

Sadly, as seen in the past, the Oscars have gotten multiple chances to at least make an effort to diversify their nomination pool, but left many feeling unimpressed and cheated. After the 2016 Oscar nominations were released, actress Jada Pinkett Smith called for a boycott of the awards in response to all 20 acting spots going to white actors. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite trended on Twitter, and many supporters of actors like Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation and Michael B. Jordan in Creed felt snubbed as their favorite actors were left out of the spotlight. More recently, the 2020 Oscars are under fire for another lapse in nomination judgement, with Director Greta Gerwig, known for Lady Bird, leaving the nominations announcements void of a “Best Director” nomination for her adaptation of Little Women and calling into question the Oscars’ legitimacy. Weeks before the 2020 nominations were announced, Gerwig told PBS NewsHour what being nominated in 2017 for Lady Bird meant for not only her, but other young female filmmakers. Gerwig said, “I can’t tell you how much it means to me when girls who are starting in film school or art school come up to me and they say, ‘I wanted to do it because I saw you do it and I believe in that.’ And that connection with these girls who are so excited, and maybe believed a little bit more because they saw a woman nominated, I think that’s been incredibly meaningful.” Kathryn Bigelow is the only female director in the history of the Oscars to win “Best Director” for her 2008 film The Hurt Locker, and if Gerwig had been nominated in 2020 she would have been the first woman to be nominated twice in that category.

Another obvious overlooked actress in the 92nd Oscars is Lupita Nyong’o for her role as Red/Adelaide in 2019’s Us. Delivering an amazing performance as two incredibly complex characters, doing vocal training and committing intensely to her contrasting roles, Nyong’o was speculated by many to be a possible contender for a “Best Actress in a Leading Role” nomination, and many were disappointed when the announcement was made in January. The Academy just narrowly escaped a panel of all-white nominees by nominating British actress Cynthia Erivo for her role as Harriet Tubman in the biopic Harriet, though she lost to Renée Zellweger. Despite previous promises made by the Oscars to improve diversity, extending its membership to 928 new members in June 2018 with historically higher numbers of women and people of color joining the voting pool, many years of snubbing actors and actresses of color has made this year’s predominantly white male slate of nominees especially disappointing.

The 92nd Oscars did provide a victory for a historically unheard community. Bong Joon Ho, the director of Parasite won the much-coveted Best Director award, making him the first Korean man to claim the title. Parasite was also the first South Korean film to win an Oscar for Best International Feature Film. This win was important for South Korea, with the American ambassador to President Moon Jae-in congratulating Bong, thanking him for “instilling pride and courage in our people.”

Many argue that the reason many people of color and women are not nominated for Oscars is because the directors or actors (or any of the other roles that tend to be overlooked) in question make enough mainstream movies that qualify for the award. This argument is a simple way of viewing a much more complex and systematic issue: more white men make movies, so more white men will be nominated for Oscars. The problem isn’t diversity in nominations, it is diversity in the filmmaking industry as a whole. Of course, there are many exceptions to this idea, as there are countless talented female directors, actors and actresses of color, directors of color and the list goes on. Smith says, “like any systems in society that have historically been dominated by predominantly white, male, cis-gender folks with access to more economic capital than most, a system-wide overhaul is required.” Hire more people of color for leading roles, support those unheard voices, and trust that a woman can, in fact, direct a movie just as well as a man.

Remember, you are allowed to form your own opinions about the film industry. Don’t base your opinions of movies on what the Oscars tell you to like, and sadly it seems we should give up on the Oscars’ credibility. Nominate your own movies, directors, makeup artists, actors, actresses, costume designers, animators, and everything else. A few alternative film awards to check out are The Women in Film & TV Awards and The American Black Film Awards, and decide what you like based on your own opinions, not just what the Academy tells you.

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