Only a couple of weeks ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced new diversity requirements for its Academy Award nominees, requirements that will go into effect in 2024. This seems to be a response (long overdue) to what began in 2015 with April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite, which was a catalyst for discussions (and action, though limited) on representation in the American film industry. The new rules are seemingly a step in the right direction, but are built on a weak foundation, full of loopholes hinting towards issues laying at the very core of the industry. Given the new regulations, many previously nominated films would qualify for diversity in their sideline participants: supporting actors, crew, interns, etc. The Academy makes more and more clear its vision of diversity, along with its neocolonialist inflections.
Considering the voting body’s overwhelming white male majority (84% white and 68% male), it makes sense that the path to positive change has been rocky. Just a year ago, The Green Book (dir. Peter Falley, 2018) won Best Picture, a decision that was reviled by critics and movie enthusiasts on Twitter and Letterboxd. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018), a much sharper exploration of racism, lost to Falley’s film––reminiscent of the 1990 Oscars’ Best Picture choice Driving Miss Daisy (dir. Bruce Beresford), which won over Lee’s seminal Do The Right Thing. The Academy continues to prove its tendency to choose pictures whose pathos appeal to their white male voting body; The Green Book and Driving Miss Daisy are prime examples, both stories who sympathize with white people who, with the help of a Black man, become less racist (as if that deserves congratulating).
Kwame Nkrumah, revolutionary and former President of Ghana, the first to use the term “neocolonialism” in the context of the 60s African decolonization, spoke of Hollywood in Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism:
“Even the cinema stories of fabulous Hollywood are loaded. One has only to listen to the cheers of an African audience as Hollywood’s heroes slaughter red Indians or Asiatics to understand the effectiveness of this weapon…And along with murder and the Wild West goes an incessant barrage of anti-socialist propaganda, in which the trade union man, the revolutionary, or the man of dark skin is generally cast as the villain, while the policeman, the gum-shoe, the Federal agent—in a word, the CIA-type spy––is ever the hero.”
These words, though written more than half a century ago, still have relevant implications. The Oscars remain, not just in America, but globally, a mark of prestige. To win an Oscar is (supposedly) to credit one’s artistic achievement, but it seems to be more of a marker with which to define what is culturally relevant. And unfortunately, this relevance is deeply intertwined in Hollywood’s neocolonialist hegemony over the global film industry.
The Oscars criteria for their Foreign Language Film Award speaks volumes; this past year, the Academy disqualified Nollywood’s (the Nigerian film industry) Lionheart (dir. Genevieve Nnaji, 2018) for having too much English in it. To this day, it defines films eligible for this award as being “predominantly in a language or languages other than English.” The award seems to misconstrue “foreign” as “other”, and “other” as “non-English”––a misunderstanding which has imperialist connotations. Afua Hirsh of The Guardian writes: “if you share an imperialist past with the US to the extent that English is your nation’s lingua franca as a result, then it is somehow less authentic to speak it. It’s ironic on so many levels.”
This year’s choice of Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2019) as Best Picture was a cause of celebration, and deservedly so. I am not going to pretend I wasn’t overjoyed that Parasite won, considering it is one of my favorite films and that it was competing against the Joker (dir. Todd Phillipps, 2019), which I had found shallow. Parasite’s win felt to me, and to others, as a triumph against the marginalization of non-Hollywood films. But the discourse that followed Parasite’s win was disappointing, much of it focusing on how Bong Joon-ho had finally “made it.”
As if having directed South Korea’s highest grossing film (The Host, 2006) and other sensational works (my favorite, 2009’s Mother) weren’t proof of his achievements. The Oscars are an American award ceremony, and so if we are to take it as such, it makes sense that it centers itself around Hollywood. But the issue is that the Academy is globally relevant (just as Hollywood extends itself globally), and remains for both film enthusiasts and the everyday consumer, a stamp of quality.
It may be possible for the Oscars to fully reinvent themselves so as to rid itself of its current neocolonialist influence. But to do so would require a simultaneous re-envisioning of Hollywood. And both the Academy and Hollywood are deeply saddled by America’s legacy of white supremacy. The erasure of diversity (Scarlett Johanson as Major Kusanagi in the 2017 remake of Ghost in The Shell, or Emma Stone as Allison Ng in 2015’s Aloha) proves their agency in upholding racism.
As does the Academy’s praise of diversity when it appears in stereotypical forms––from Hattie McDonald’s 1940 win for acting as Mammy in Gone With The Wind, or the more recent 2011 win of Octavia Spencer playing Minny Jackson in The Help. The industry’s BIPOC are forced to work twice as hard as their white counterparts, fighting profiling, misrepresentation, and gatekeeping. All this makes dismantling Hollywood’s global hegemony an even more onerous task.
The Oscars has its merits, be it for the economy (Hollywood being one of America’s largest exports), or (more importantly) its promotion of film as more than just entertainment to the general American audience. The issue is that the awards are a reference point from which general movie audiences develop their film taste. “Taste” is a tricky thing to tackle, particularly for its involvement in the notion of “being cultured” (in my opinion, a term frequently used in a gross privilege-blind context). The issue with the Oscars’ cultural relevance is that it determines for others what is valuable, and this determination brings along notions of quality marked by the same discrimination that the country has yet to face properly. And so, movie audiences are initiated into the film world through this lens––without disclaimers.
To see through this lens is to believe that liking a Tarantino film is to appreciate great filmmaking and to dislike a Tarantino film (for its under-contextualized racism, or misogyny perhaps) is to not “understand” it. I don’t buy that. You can certainly enjoy a film and recognize its faults. But the idea that a film’s purported greatness trumps all, is privilege-blind. Film does not exist in a vacuum––it has real-life consequences. And to ignore its flaws in our current historical context is to not care about these consequences.
I am writing this partially for myself, a reminder that I should invest myself less in the Oscars. My past investments have been met, for the most part, with disappointment. But I am also suggesting that it is time we all consider the relevancy of award ceremonies like the Oscars. Perhaps I am too cynical. But it seems as though the Academy can’t keep pace with the world it exists in––a world which demands change.