Parasite made history on Sunday when it became the first non-English language film to take home Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It was the kind of moment that makes you remember why we all stop what we’re doing and watch four straight hours of Hollywood celebrities pat themselves on the back once a year: Sometimes, film really can change the world.
Watching director Bong Joon-ho and the film’s cast celebrate on stage after a big night that also included a win for Best Original Screenplay (a first-time award for South Korea), Best Director, and Best International Feature Film, one could almost believe that the Oscars were reaching a turning point after yet another year without diverse acting nominees, or any recognition of women directors. Coming on the heels of last year’s controversial Green Book win made for especially strong whiplash. But Parasite’s triumph was a mere bright spot in an otherwise bumpy show, characterised by cringe-worthy attempts at inclusion to make up for the disappointing lack of recognition for women or people of colour within the system itself. In other words, Parasite’s win is the exception — a beautiful, encouraging, and exciting one to be sure — not the rule.
Janelle Monae’s opening number set the tone, kicking off with a tribute to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a beautifully moving film about fragile masculinity directed by Marielle Heller, who was snubbed in the Best Director category. The following medley, led by Monae, Elton John, and Billy Porter, included what appeared to be strange tributes to some of the year’s snubbed films, including Midsommar, Us, and Dolemite Is My Name — movies starring women and black leads that told stories outside of white masculinity. The performer also shouted out praise for all the women directors who, once again, were shut out of the Best Director category this year. The message was clear: Instead of giving women and people of colour the respect and admiration of their peers, the Academy was going to make them celebrate themselves through a literal song and dance routine.
This was a recurring theme throughout the rest of the night. Immediately after Monae’s performance, former Oscars hosts Steve Martin and Chris Rock took the stage to announce the first presenter of the night (Regina King) and used the opportunity to joke about the lack of diversity in nominations. “In 1929 there were no black nominees. Now it’s 2020; we have one,” Rock said, referring to Cynthia Erivo, the only acting nominee of colour this year.
And then came the tried and tested jokes about the lack of nominations for women directors."So many great directors nominated this year,” Rock quipped. To which Martin responded: “I don't know, Chris, I thought there was something missing from the list this year." "Vaginas?” Rock immediately replied.
The thing is though, we’ve heard these jokes before. In the 92-year history of the Academy Awards, only five women directors have ever been nominated. Only Kathryn Bigelow has won, for a movie about a male EOD specialist coping with PTSD. That leaves us with 87 years worth of stale “no women director” jokes. By making it a harmless part of the opening monologue, the Oscars showrunners are normalising this as something so expected that it’s not even worth being outraged about. Let’s laugh it off, Oscars joke writers are telegraphing. A far more powerful form of protest came from Natalie Portman, who had the names of snubbed women directors embroidered onto her black Dior Haute Couture cape in gold thread. These included Marielle Heller, Lulu Wang, Melina Matsoukas, Mati Diop, Greta Gerwig, Alma Ha’rel, and Lorene Scafaria.
Mark Ruffalo, introducing the Best Documentary Feature, went out of his way to point out that four of this year’s entries were directed or co-directed by women, including the winner, American Factory. Carol Dysinger, who won Best Documentary Short for her film Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl), also emphasised her wish that her presence on stage might inspire women to realize that their dreams are within reach.
These victories are important, and we should celebrate them. But the constant need by presenters and winners to showcase diversity during the show only served to highlight the glaring truth: These moments matter because the Academy isn’t willing to do more. They are a Band-Aid on a gaping wound, an attempt to pander to women and minorities so we forget that we aren’t getting the respect we deserve on a broader scale.
Even director Bong, accepting one of his four awards of the night, made sure to ask the room to stand and acknowledge his stellar cast, emphasising their glaring omissions from the acting nominations. Likewise, Laura Dern, accepting her first-ever Oscar (Best Supporting Actress for her role in Marriage Story) used her time to acknowledge Greta Gerwig, who directed her in Little Women, a movie nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress, but not Best Director. "If I could give this Oscar to Greta Gerwig, I would do it right now “ she said. Little Women did win one Oscar, which went to Jacqueline Durran’s magnificent costumes. Though well-deserved, it was yet another example of the fact that the Academy only takes women-led films seriously in categories considered traditionally “feminine.” Turns out, women wear dresses, and those dresses are pretty!
Later on in the night, Brie Larson, Sigourney Weaver, and Gal Gadot presented the award for Best Original Score. Amid jokes about starting a fight club (“the loser has to answer questions about what it’s like being a woman in Hollywood”) and paying tribute to female superheroes on-screen and off (“all women are superheroes”), they also took time to mark a history-making Oscar moment. For the first time, the conductor hired to lead the orchestra in a rendition of excerpts of the nominated scores was a woman. Don’t get me wrong — my heartfelt congratulations to Eímear Noone, who did an amazing job, and looked like a fierce gold queen doing it. But once again, this felt like the Academy trying very hard to divert our attention from the fact that for 91 years before this, they have hired men (conducting is another field that’s been slow to promote women). It smacks of sweaty desperation for attention over something that should, by this time, be the norm.
On the night before the Oscars, celebrities gathered under a tent on the beach in Santa Monica for another kind of celebration: the Independent Spirit Awards. That ceremony, which celebrates the highest achievement in indie filmmaking, gave out two of the most prestigious awards of the night to films directed by and starring women. Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart took home Best First Feature, while Lulu Wang’s The Farewell won Best Feature. In her speech, Wang emphasised the need for women to not just feel supported, but to actually get jobs.
"There's been a lot of conversation this year about how to encourage more women to be in film or get more women into the conversation," she said. "And I just have to say that we don't have to encourage women. There are lots of women making films. Really, what women need is just the job. Just give them the frickin' job!"
Instead of pandering to women and minorities, the Academy should give them what they deserve: nominations. Everything else is window dressing. To quote Parasite: “Respect!”