Is it time to just give up on the Oscars getting diversity right?
Another year, another missed opportunity as the awards largely celebrate movies by and about white dudes
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.
Oh, how naive I was going into this awards season with hope — truly a dangerous thing to have when you're a lifelong Oscar geek desperate for a reason to defend an institution that has been increasingly indefensible as of late. Even last night, after a month of red flags by way of the Golden Globes and the SAG and BAFTA nominations, I felt compelled to argue that the Oscars' push for diversity would result in nominations that saved the season. "Don't worry," I told a group of folks who'd already rightfully given up. "Greta Gerwig will be nominated for director, Lulu Wang for screenplay and Zhao Shuzhen, Song Kang-ho, Awkwafina, Lupita Nyong'o and Eddie Murphy will all get in for acting. Just watch." I didn't even consider a need to assert Jennifer Lopez's nomination because I couldn't fathom them snubbing her.
And yet, here we are. This morning's 92nd Academy Award nominations were a wasted opportunity to honour a year in which one of the few hopeful narratives in this burning world was that the push for diversity in cinematic storytelling seemed to actually be paying off.
Unlike years past, there wasn't just one film made by a (white) woman for people to champion — there were at least a dozen thanks to Gerwig (Little Women), Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), Alma Ha'rel (Honey Boy), Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood), Lulu Wang (The Farewell), Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers), Kasi Lemmons (Harriet) Claire Denis (High Life), Olivia Wilde (Booksmart) Joanna Hogg (The Souvenir), Mati Diop (Atlantics) and Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (The Mustang). The grand total of nominations for all of those films combined? Nine, with six going to Little Women, two to Harriet and and one to Neighbourhood. That means that all narrative features directed by women combined got two fewer nominations than Joker, a film specifically about a cis white straight man feeling disaffected by society (which ultimately results in violence we are made to cheer for).
In fact, the announcement was dominated by four films directed by and largely about white men, with Joker, The Irishman, Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood and 1917 each getting nominations in the double digits for a count that added up to a whopping 41 nominations. (And yet 2019's best movie by and about white dudes — Uncut Gems — received zero nominations.) Yes, Little Women and Bong Joon-ho's Parasite were next in line with six each — and thank god for that — but it still felt overwhelmingly like Oscars voters were not simply ignoring an opportunity to celebrate the burgeoning diversity of the industry they represent: they were full-on pushing back against it by showering the old guard with as much love as possible. On what planet is the screenplay for 1917 more deserving than The Farewell, Pain and Glory or Booksmart? Who are the sizeable percentage of the Academy's directors branch who thought Todd Phillips deserved to join a club that's been denied to all but five women in 92 years? And how does one look at the snubs for Rocketman's costumes and makeup and hairstyling as anything other than homophobia (I'm kidding, but like, how could the costumes from The Irishman and Jojo Rabbit possibly be considered more worthy?)
Coming off a year where the primary two films celebrated were deemed wildly problematic in their representations of race (Green Book) and sexuality (Bohemian Rhapsody), it's hard to trust the Oscars to get it together anytime soon. This is still an institution that, nearly a century in, has only given one woman — and zero Black filmmakers — a best director win and still has yet to ever give an openly LGBTQ actor an award (no, Jodie Foster and Kevin Spacey do not retroactively count), none of which will change this year. Not a good look for an awards show whose primary fanbase — whether they like or it not — does not look like the cast of The Irishman.
Women and gays have been propping up the Oscars ratings for decades, and you just dared to deny us both a Beyoncé performance and the ability to say the words "Academy Award nominee Jennifer Lopez"? But, more importantly, you potentially just denied us all a much-needed breather from watching old white straight men dominate the news cycle with their determination to destroy the world by making the Oscars a likely celebration of...old white straight men. You know we're probably going to watch the February 9th ceremony anyway — but if the night doesn't end with the words "and the Oscar for best picture goes to...Parasite," you can be certain our knives will be out.