May 28, 2020

The morning of Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, movie fans held their breath in anticipation for the nominations of the 92nd annual Academy Awards. In a year with some of the most popular and profitable films ever released, many wished to ensure that their favourites are properly rewarded with that golden trophy.

Many front-runners made a large impact, Joker garnering 11 nominations with 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman following closely behind with 10 nominations each. As the list goes on, critics noticed that the majority of the nominated films either star a white man or were directed by one (often both). 

Ashlee Jowett, a liberal arts professor at Conestoga College believes despite the Academy Awards being an American institution, over time they have become less representative and, by extension, less relevant. 

While Jowet said it is important to award people for their work in scenarios like the Oscars, “It’s just when you start to find out … the way they are put together maybe isn’t inclusive or isn’t representative then you start to question what the point is.”

Any category that was not exclusively female based (Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress) had a dismal percentage of female representation. The Best Picture category featured nine films and only one, Little Women, featured a female lead with Marriage Story featuring male and female co-leads. The Best Director category featured no women at all, despite brilliant work from directors like Greta Gerwig (Little Women) and Lulu Wang (The Farewell).

This is not a new development for the Oscars. Only five women have ever been nominated for best director (including Greta Gerwig for 2018’s Lady Bird) and only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has ever won. Notably, this win came for her 2010 film, The Hurt Locker, a war movie with a largely male cast. Bigelow was not nominated for best director for her later film, Zero Dark Thirty, another critically acclaimed war film (nominated for best picture) that, instead, featured a female lead. 

The Academy Award ceremony has never been overly focused on the budget of a film. Smaller artistic works are typically much more likely to receive recognition than the giant summer blockbusters. However, having a high production value never hurts and movies centered around men tend to reap the benefits of that.

This chart shows the budgets of select films vying for Academy Awards in 2020. Films with male leads are blue, female leads are orange, and co-leads are green.

As a video essay published on Youtube by the channel Be Kind Rewind says, “When thinking about this year in particular, I have to wonder: Would any of these films be the same without their budgets? Would we care about 1917 if it weren’t one continuous shot? Would The Irishman seem as sweeping a statement about time without expensive CGI to deage its actors?”

Women aren’t the only people being overshadowed at this award ceremony, however. Only one film nominated for best picture featured any non-white leads, Parasite (Dir. Bong Joon Ho).

While Parasite’s inclusion (and subsequent win) is groundbreaking as it is the first South Korean film to be nominated for Best Picture, many other critically and commercially successful movies of 2020 heavily featured people of colour.

Jordan Peele’s Us starring Lupita Nyong’o was highly regarded and centered around black family. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell was a deeply personal story that starred many Asian actors and Asian American actress Awkwafina was awarded a Golden Globe for her performance as the lead. The list is extensive, yet the Academy seemed to either turn a blind eye to these stand out performances, or believed that the inclusion of Parasite was enough to improve diversity. 

“It begs the question of who’s choosing and why are they choosing and who benefits from the choices that are made?” said Jowett.

When looking at the nominees for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, there is another shocking lack of diversity. Only one woman of colour, Cynthia Erivo (Harriet), was nominated for Best Actress. The Best Supporting Actress consists entirely of caucasion women. 

According to a Vox article by Emily Todd VanDerWerff, “Nominating just one performer of color and then nominating her for playing Harriet Tubman feels a little like a bad joke…”

Lupita Nyong’o, a black actress who was praised for her performance in Jordan Peele’s Us, received no recognition despite having won in the past for her role in 12 Years a Slave.

According to research performed by Statista, Oscar viewership has been trending downward. While it increased slightly from 2018 to 2019, those two years were the lowest it has been in nearly 20 years and the stark lack of diversity may be to blame.

“I barely watch them because I don’t find them to be significant in terms of actual, legitimate markers of what the audience wants.” Jowett said. “What’s the point of an award show if its representative of a pocket of people and not the general (public)? Just have them produce it for themselves and they can watch it.”

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