In the lead-up to the Oscars, the sheer number of nominations Bong Joon-ho’s social satire Parasite received seemed like a miracle. The Academy Awards had never previously recognized South Korean films. (Lee Chang-dong’s magnificent Burning made the Oscar shortlist in 2018, but ultimately wasn’t a nominee.) And no non-English-language film had ever taken Best Picture in the 92-year history of the Academy Awards. A win in the Best Foreign Language Film category (recently renamed as “Best International Feature Film”) had historically been the cap. Add in the fact that Sam Mendes’ 1917 spent awards season picking up steam as a technical marvel, and it seemed as though Parasite’s Best Picture chances were slim. Even though it truly was the best picture of 2019, it was competing in an awards show that was historically skewed against it.
Which made it all the more miraculous that Parasite ended the night with not only the prizes for Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature Film, and Best Director, but for Best Picture, too.
Throughout the night, presenters and winners alluded to the Academy’s lack of recognition for female filmmakers and people of color. Though those barbs were attention-grabbing in the moment, they felt hollow, given that they weren’t being backed up by actual awards or tangible action. The opening number, performed by Janelle Monáe, was full of references to films that weren’t nominated including Us and Dolemite Is My Name, and the mid-ceremony rap, performed by Utkarsh Ambudkar, began with Ambudkar saying he clearly didn’t belong in the room, as a person of a color. Parasite’s win, however, was akin to an earthquake. A South Korean film with an entirely Korean cast and almost no English dialogue had won the biggest prize of the night.
The win signaled a real shift in tides in an institution that failed to nominate any of the movie’s actors, and that included voters who don’t think Parasite should be allowed to compete with “the regular films”). For the first time, a non-English-language film surpassed the barrier of being considered something “other,” and cracked open the door for other international features to follow in its footsteps. Speaking to Vulture’s E. Alex Jung, director Bong describe the Oscars as “local,” in reference to the fact that the awards ceremony really only tends to recognize Western films. “The Oscars are not an international film festival,” Bong said. Parasite’s win feels like an important first step in making that untrue.
There’s still a lot of work to be done. The Oscars followed Moonlight’s Best Picture win at 2017’s ceremony with Green Book at the 2019 awards, arguably canceling out its own progress. Moonlight, which told the story of a gay man struggling with his sexuality and masculinity, became the first film with an all-black cast to win Best Picture. Meanwhile, Green Book — which was touted as being based on a true friendship between Don Shirley, a black pianist, and Frank Vallelonga, his white driver — came under fire when Shirley’s family protested the portrayal, saying the two were never friends, as well as for its white savior narrative and an oversimplification of race relations in America. The Academy’s attempts at diversifying its voting body are part of an uphill battle. This isn’t the first year the Oscars have been called out for failing to nominate female directors or people of color, and night-of jabs ultimately won’t shift the needle as far as tangible action will.
So it goes with the film industry as a larger whole — movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, which boast people of color both in front of and behind the camera, mark the incremental progress of an landscape that’s slow to change, and often resistant. But the bigger their successes, the more difficult it is for naysayers to deny that progress isn’t just necessary, but also a good thing. There’s so much good art out there that we’re either ignorant of or outright ignoring, and it’s impossible to justify that willful ignorance and Americentrism when films like Parasite exist.
There’s no denying that Parasite is an incredible film, not just for pulling the rug out from under films that would win in any other Oscar year (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, The Irishman, and 1917 seemed like the biggest contenders), but simply for being a great film. The realities of the Academy’s path to progress and the continued biases of people within the industry for “foreign” films can’t stamp out the fact that we’re lucky to have such an extraordinary piece of art in front of us. And its Best Picture win is an extraordinary feat, too.