I watched live, for the first time, as the 2020 Oscar nominations were announced by John Cho and Issa Rae a couple of weeks ago. I allowed myself to feel a twinge of hope – that after a truly phenomenal year for female filmmaking, for diverse, personal, and varied stories – that some of my favourites would be recognised on a global stage.
I should really know better by now. I was left disappointed, but not at all surprised, at the Academy’s refusal to acknowledge a wider range of films – films that would better reflect the range of artists we have honing their craft today.
Men continued to dominate the Directing category, their films stampeding over lesser-known gems, each garnering multiple nominations across the categories: 11 for Joker and 10 apiece for 1917, Once Upon A Time In… Hollywood and The Irishman. (I refuse to get frustrated in the same way about Parasite because I think it’s fantastic that a foreign-language film is finally getting some attention and in no way wish to detract from that). The nominations this year follow a disheartening trend. Not a single female director nominated.
My three favourite films of 2019 were all directed by women: Booksmart (Olivia Wilde), The Farewell (Lulu Wang) and Little Women (Greta Gerwig). They are all films that have done reasonably well across this award season more generally, in various categories: for direction, for screenplay, and for performances. They are each widely and highly regarded. Why then, apart from a handful of nominations for Little Women, have the Oscars have all but ignored them?
A new decade is upon us and we’re left asking the same question: why does the Academy repeatedly fail to acknowledge female directorial talent?
In conjunction with Directing, the acting categories reflect a similar lack of diversity – multiple POC (Person of Colour) actors were snubbed, despite giving some of the best performances of the year: Lupita Nyong’o (Us) (see below), Awkwafina (The Farewell), Ana de Armas (Knives Out) and Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers) immediately come to mind, though I am sure that there are many more that awards season has swept under the radar.
It’s no surprise that hashtags such as #OscarsSoWhite have made a resurgence. Other award shows, such as the BAFTAs, have fallen foul to the same biases: in the ‘Best Actress in a Supporting Role’ category for 2020, Margot Robbie is nominated twice (for both Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood (see below) and Bombshell). It goes without saying that Margot Robbie is not the one at fault here, but this case is indicative of biases that run rampant in mainstream award shows.
Other films that harboured diverse casts and stories, such as Waves and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, went similarly unacknowledged. Only Cynthia Erivo received a Lead Actress Oscar nomination for Harriet (a rather formulaic and Oscar-baity biopic about a truly extraordinary woman).
All of this leads me to beg the question: why should we continue to pay attention to an awards ceremony that refuses to acknowledge the diverse range of directorial voices, performances and writers that have graced the big screen this year? The Academy are selecting the same fish from the same pool year in and year out: it’s excruciatingly predictable. Why do we place such value on this particular awards ceremony?
I would love nothing more than to boycott the Oscars, but the fact remains that the Oscars matter. They matter because they are a cultural and social marker of what in the mainstream is promoted as “good”, what is highlighted, and what is given a platform. They establish which films – with the press attention that such awards bestow – will be viewed by large numbers of people. It’s a recognised stamp of worth. The Oscars help dictate filmic canon: what is successful, what is respected, and what will be financed in the future.
When the Oscars refuse to acknowledge the diverse range of voices that exist across cinema – (instead returning again and again to familiar male auteur figures such as Tarantino and Scorsese) – they essentially discount them. The Oscars set a universally recognised precedent, and that precedent should reflect the diversity present in the industry: diversity is present. Those films do exist. And they are good.
The issue, I think, lies with the Academy, rather than with the films themselves. I quite enjoyed Once Upon A Time In… Hollywood, I didn’t hate Joker (though I remain at a loss as to why it was nominated for both Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay), I marvelled at the construction of 1917, laughed along with Jojo Rabbit, was awed by the nuance of Marriage Story. I liked the spectacle of Ford v Ferrari, cried in The Two Popes and grinned manically whilst watching Knives Out. I’m trying to find something positive to say about The Irishman, but I’m struggling, so will remain silent…
I was thrilled by the Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress and Best Picture nods for Little Women, was pleasantly surprised by the complete list of nominees for Best Animated Feature (I adored Klaus), and am now slowly making my way through all the nominated shorts, documentaries and foreign-language films (categories I am grateful the Oscars have because they give a platform for films that may otherwise remain on the fringes).
I do not wish to undermine films beloved by many, for that would require in-depth, individual film reviews for each. Instead of critiquing and giving more time to films that have been receiving media attention for months, I want to spend the rest of this piece celebrating the films that the Oscars didn’t acknowledge.
From female directors, we have:
Booksmart – directed by Olivia Wilde
The Farewell – directed by Lulu Wang
Hustlers – directed by Lorene Scafaria
Honey Boy – directed by Alma Har’el
Knock Down the House – directed by Rachel Lears
The Souvenir – directed by Joanna Hogg
On the Basis of Sex – directed by Mimi Leder
Greener Grass – directed by Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe
The Nightingale – directed by Jennifer Kent
Portrait of a Lady on Fire – directed by Celine Sciamma
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood – directed by Marielle Heller
Queen & Slim – directed by Melina Matsoukas
Atlantics – directed by Mati Diop
And a bonus list of other 2019 films that I really liked:
Fighting with My Family – directed by Stephen Merchant
Little Monsters – directed by Abe Forsythe
Us – directed by Jordan Peele
Wild Rose – directed by Tom Harper
A White, White Day – directed by Hlynur Palmason
Fyre – directed by Chris Smith
Woman at War – directed by Benedikt Erlingsson
I hope that these two lists demonstrate, in some part, the extent to which the Oscars are getting it wrong. There are so many wonderful, lesser-known works out there – works that will struggle to reach a wider audience because they are not acknowledged within mainstream discourses. There are intrinsic biases at play within popular awards shows, biases that actively discount artists belonging to minority groups.
If awards shows continue to propagate the ideology that you have to be male to be a successful director and white to be a successful actor, where does that leave the future of the industry?