On January 13th the 92nd Academy Awards announced this year’s nominations. And they were overwhelmingly white and male. This outturn gave me flashbacks to 2016 when the infamous #OscarsSoWhite was trending because all 20 actors nominated were Caucasian. Since then, a lot of non-white actors specifically have been nominated, and some even won in the following years. But now we’re in 2020, and things seem to be back to square one. The only thought that came to me was that meme: “disappointed, but not surprised.’’
First of all, it’s odd how the Oscars let two prominent actors of color John Cho and Issa Rae, announce the nomination. When meanwhile, the actual nominees don’t reflect this at all, but this is definitely not the first time.
The traditional gender gap in the film industry
One of the biggest controversies was that no women were nominated for Best Director, while there were so many ground-breaking female directors in 2019 compared to any other year. Most notable were Lulu Wang (The Farewell), Greta Gerwig (Little Women), Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers), and Olivia Wilde (Booksmart). These movies were all critically acclaimed and generally praised as well, so at least one of these has been snubbed. Award-announcer Issa Rae even gave shade at the end by saying: “Congratulations to those men’’.
Internalized racism left and right
Now let’s get to the 20 actors that were nominated this year for best actors and best-supporting actors. Cynthia Erivo, in the category of Best Lead Actress, was the only person of color that was nominated for an acting role. She played the role of Harriet Tubman in Harriet, who was a historical figure who escaped slavery and became an abolitionist and political activist. This reminded me of a meme I saw on Twitter last year: “Award season be like: ‘And your nominees are… White person, white person, black person playing a slave, white person.’’’. This is a prime example of what kind of stories about minorities, the Oscar voting members do regard as “worthy’’ for nomination.
The astonishing thing was also that many critically acclaimed films in the past year had lead actors of color such as Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers), Awkwafina (The Farewell), Lupita Nyong’o (Us), and Eddie Murphy (Dolemite is my Name). Jennifer Lopez, who played the complex role of Ramona in Hustlers based on real-life, and Awkwafina, who won a Golden Globe for her role in The Farewell, were all highly expected to receive a nomination.
Diversity and quality are NOT mutually exclusive
What I’ve heard a lot of people say when things like this are repeatedly happening in media entertainment, is that it’s not about diversity, but about the “best’’ work and performers. First of all, this is a very dangerous statement to make because it implies that diversity and quality are mutually exclusive, which is definitely not. Second, they can be synonymous, but a lot of industries simply see only quality from one type of demographic.
It’s really easy for a person to just see the quality in artworks where they can see themselves in and can relate to. But relatability for me was always more than just your own skin color or gender; from the white protagonist of Joker to the female protagonists of Little Women, I related to them and their story-lines to certain extents, which made it good quality movies for me.
The white patriarchy’s ego within The Academy
The majority of the 9000-voting members are white and male, and they decide which actors and movies get nominated. This was also noticeable for the Best Picture nominations, in which six out of the nine nominated movies focused on “male tales’’. These stories focus on white (disaffected) masculinities in particular, which is reflected in the voting pool. Of course, I’m not saying these movies aren’t good and worthy. They mostly are quality work, but so are a lot of movies I mentioned previously with the same critical acclaim, featuring predominantly women and people of color.
Diversity inherently doesn’t mean instant quality, but it can definitely lead to more interesting, relatable, and, therefore, higher quality art. Ground-breaking nominees for Best Picture were Little Women, with a predominantly female cast and Parasite, with a South-Korean cast and being the only non-English-speaking film, which is a milestone.
Art is, after all subjective, and who the judges are really matters. If the majority of voters are one type of demographic – in this case, male and white – then works and performances by people of color and women about people of color and women may very well not be understood first of all, and therefore not appreciated. Or they are not even watched, to begin with. Irrespective of quality, if these works created by minorities are overlooked by institutions predominantly comprised of white men, there is a bias at work. So in what world could it ever be acceptable that some works of art are ignored because these creators and stories weren’t regarded as equal to begin with?
Cover: Engin Akyurt