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a Chinese family stands in front of a rainbow structure in The Farewell

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The 2020 Oscars’ biggest snubs point to a misunderstanding of the craft

In 2020, the Academy Awards are still so white

The cast of The Farewell.
| Photo: A24

This year’s Golden Globes Awards took the lead-up to this year’s Oscars in some surprising directions, with 1917 transforming from a dark horse to an apparent Oscar favorite, while The Irishman went home empty-handed on the same night. More hearteningly, Awkwafina became the first Asian-American actress to win a Golden Globe in the Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy category for her performance in The Farewell, and Parasite director Bong Joon-ho went viral for his acceptance speech for Best Foreign Language Film by saying that subtitles shouldn’t be a barrier for films to reach a wider audience. But the Oscar nominations themselves are largely a disappointment, with no women nominated in the Best Director category, and actors of color almost entirely shut out of the conversation.

The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was born as a reaction to an all-white slate of acting nominations in 2015 and 2016, and has cropped up in various iterations since, as film awards notoriously fail to mirror the diversity of the filmmaking field. This year, the Oscars just barely avoided another all-white list of acting nominees — Cynthia Erivo, who declined to perform at the upcoming BAFTAs after they failed to nominate any actors of color, is nominated for Best Actress for her performance in the biopic Harriet. But Erivo’s nomination hardly makes up for other significant overlooked films, especially as the Academy has publicized its efforts to make its voting body more diverse.

It’s bizarre that none of the cast of Parasite were nominated, even though the movie picked up nominations for Writing (Original Screenplay), Production Design, International Feature Film, Film Editing, Best Director, and Best Picture. The film isn’t just a directorial or technical achievement; it’s peerless on every level. If no one performance in the film stands out over the others, it’s because they’re all so strong — even director Bong Joon-ho has referred to his film as “actor-led.” The lack of acting nominations for Parasite are more likely yet another indication of Oscars voters’ tendency to overlook performances in foreign films and by people of color. In the same way, it’s almost more disappointing to see Lulu Wang’s The Farewell completely shut out from the Oscars, especially after Awkwafina’s win at the Golden Globes.

Bong stands in front of the camera, gesturing to his actors.
Bong Joon-ho on the set of Parasite.
Photo: CJ Entertainment/Neon

These snubs, however, point to a bigger problem best exemplified by the lack of a Best Director nomination for Greta Gerwig. Little Women is nominated for Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Original Score, Costume Design, Actress in a Supporting Role, Actress in a Leading Role, and even Best Picture, as if somehow Gerwig had had nothing to do with the film’s success. Along with the lack of recognition for Wang and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood director Marielle Heller, among others, points to a fundamental misunderstanding of directing.

Little Women, The Farewell, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood are short on stereotypical action, but that doesn’t mean they required less work, focus, or decision-making. (Just as having a great ensemble doesn’t prevent individual performances from being singled out.) There’s also the deeper problem that women are seldom afforded the chances that, say, Todd Phillips had in jumping from comedies to a drama re-imagining a major studio character.

Ultimately, this all feeds into a statement Gerwig made while discussing her Little Women script: “I still think we very much have a hierarchy of stories. I think that the top of the hierarchy is male violence — man on man, man on woman, etc. I think if you look at the books and films and stories that we consider to be ‘important,’ that is a common theme, either explicitly or implicitly.”

This year’s Oscar nominees prove Gerwig’s point, but perhaps on a more macro scale. The stories that tend to get recognized and awarded aren’t just “male” — they’re also still predominantly white stories, which shuts out films like The Farewell, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Dolemite is My Name. Lupita Nyong’o’s stunning double performance in Us is also nowhere to be seen among the nominations. And the argument that Us’s categorization as a genre picture counted against it doesn’t hold up, given that the “comic book movie” Joker now boasts 11 nominations.

Over the past few years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has tried to change its image, renaming the Best Foreign Language Film category (now Best International Feature Film) “to be more inclusive and less sort of distancing,” and attempting to diversify its voting body. But this year’s nominations make it clear there’s still a lot of work to be done. Arguably, the voters aren’t the only problem: a bigger issue is the deep-seated idea that the flashiest stories deserve the most awards, and that ostentatiousness is the primary marker of great craftsmanship. The “one-shot” experiment of 1917 is certainly ambitious, but telling a harrowing, action-filled story or experimenting with the medium aren’t the only paths to cinematic greatness. And being a white man in the industry isn’t the only path to cinematic greatness either — a fact the Academy still seems to be struggling to internalize.