Yes, This Year’s Oscars Were Historic — But We Can’t Get Complacent

daniel kaluuya oscars

Back in 2017, I wrote an article for a student newspaper about “Hollywood’s Diversity Problem”. This was in the run-up to Black Panther, and in the wake of Moonlight’s Oscars triumph—but also under the looming shadow of the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite backlash.

Fast-forward several years, and the 2021 Academy Awards have been the most diverse yet. Nomadland director Chloé Zhao became the second ever woman and first woman of colour to win Best Director. Youn Yuh-jung became the first Korean woman to be named Best Actress. Other historic firsts included, but certainly weren’t limited to, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson becoming the first Black women to win Best Make-up and Hairstyling, for their work on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

On top of that, those who like complaining that the Oscars are getting ‘too political’ must have absolutely hated this year.

Case in point: in 1939 Hattie McDaniel, the first Black Oscar winner, collected her Best Supporting Actress award from a segregated table. Yet this year, two awards went to Judas and the Black Messiah, a proudly anti-racist drama centred around the much-maligned and misunderstood Black Panther movement. On top of that we had the Asian American-centric Minari, the nuanced Afrocentric Ma Rainey, and feminist revenge thriller Promising Young Woman. Meanwhile, announcer Regina King addressed the Black Lives Matter movement in her speech, referencing the conviction of George Floyd’s murderer. Then, Judas star Daniel Kaluuya, having won Best Supporting Actor, thanked the Black Panthers for their activism and told everyone present: “There’s so much work to do guys, and that’s on everyone in this room.” 

And yet.

Some voters will no doubt spend years patting themselves on the backs after all that. Yet in truth, the Academy’s record on diversity is mixed at best. I’m not talking about the usual pre-2015 ‘yikes’ moments: we all know that Gone With The Wind is full of cringe-worthy “nostalgia for slavery”, that the White Saviour complex of films like The Blind Side needs to die, and so on. No, this is about the last few years—since controversies like #OscarsSoWhite made the Academy discover its ‘woke’ side, with… varying degrees of success.

2017 was definitely better. Moonlight became the first afrocentric Best Picture winner that wasn’t about slavery or civil rights. 2018, though, was a mixed bag. Yes, the winners included Get Out, Mudbound and I, Tonya. But among other things, the Best Actress category had exactly 0 non-white nominees. 2019 had The Favourite, Black KkKlansman and, yes, Black Panther (among others). Yet it was also the year that Green Book won Best Picture, despite an approach to race relations that seemed plucked straight out of the 1950s, and probably should have stayed there.

Then in 2020, Parasite won Best Picture—and yet, its Asian cast and crew were surrounded by a sea of mostly white faces, aside from Cynthia Erivo’s nomination for Harriet (another slavery movie.) Sure, by this point the percentage of female and BAME members had increased—but only from 25% to 33% and 10% to 19%, respectively. Add on the depressing leniency of those new “proof of diversity” rules, and you’ve got an organisation that isn’t so much committed to diversity as stuck in an unhealthy, on-again-off-again relationship with it.

It’s not hard, then, to imagine its members congratulating themselves for this year and then, job done, throwing out yet another all-white-plus-maybe-one-slavery-movie ensemble for 2022.

And with that, we come to this year’s downsides. To the awkward questions like, why the hell did reaching those Big Historic Milestones take so long in the first place? Why were LaKeith Stanfield and Kaluuya both relegated to Best Supporting Actor for Judas, despite Stanfield playing the lead? Why didn’t King get a Best Director nomination for One Night In Miami? And why was Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods so thoroughly snubbed? (They did know they could honour multiple Black male directors at once, right?

But the main ‘scandal’, of course, was the Best Actor award. The one everyone expected Chadwick Boseman to posthumously win, but which went to Anthony Hopkins instead. (This, incidentally, was swiftly attributed to Hopkins’ talent—unlike Parasite’s Best Picture win, which was blamed on political correctness for reasons I can’t possibly fathom.) The evening was restructured to move Best Actor to the end—which now comes across as an arrogant, borderline voyeuristic attempt to use Boseman to bolster the Academy’s image. 

And then, there was the NFT—the weird, gaudy $1.2 million digital sculpture of Boseman’s head. The company that commissioned it isn’t affiliated with the Oscars, but still. It’s not a good look that the Academy was happy to be associated with a business that was doubtless patting itself on the back for donating 50% of the profits—despite this leaving $420,000 going god knows where. Money that they’re making by effectively commodifying a Black celebrity’s death, and taking the word ‘objectifying’ to a whole new level by selling a model of that same Black man’s head. True, Boseman’s brother has pointed out that he didn’t really care about the Oscars anyway—but if anything, that just makes it more painful to see them using his legacy for clout. 

In short, what this year’s Oscars gave us was essentially tokenism. And, as Meghan Markle found out upon entering another old institution with a problematic history, tokenism isn’t the same as real diversity. Chloé Zhao’s win is great news, but she can’t single-handedly end misogyny or ‘solve’ racism in the film industry, any more than Markle could end it in the monarchy. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be calling for more representation: it’s badly needed, both in front of and behind the camera, which is why it was good news when the percentage of female directors rose from 15.7 to 19.4% last year

The Oscars, however, will probably never be the driving force for real change in the industry. After all the Academy is, essentially, an exclusive and highly influential clique, where it’s less about artistic merit, and more about Hollywood feeling good about itself. And that influence is important, but we can’t rely on it. As with any areas of our society that are still steeped in decades if not centuries of systemic, ongoing oppression (be it misogynistic, racist, homophobic or otherwise), what’s needed is systemic, ongoing reform from the ground up. From more diverse casts and stories to more support and outreach to minority filmmakers, sustained and committed change is needed in every area of the film industry. 

Still, with any luck, at least no-one will confuse Daniel Kaluuya with Leslie Odom Jr. next year. It’d be a start… right?

Words by Emma Curzon

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