Culture Trips

Has the Oscars really faced up to its race problem?

The ceremony itself, held last Sunday, was radically different from the previous year and not only because it was virtual. Whilst no awards ceremony’s results could meet with unanimous agreement, victories for directors of colour Zhao, and Remi Weekes (in the outstanding British debut category for his horror His House), and actors of colour Daniel Kaluuya, Bukky Bakray and Yuh-Jung Youn were all met with broad approval and Joaquin Phoenix’s speech from the previous year was turned on its head. The message Bafta sent was that people of colour were not only welcome but to be celebrated.

But back to the Oscars – has its milder strategy truly effected change? Gavron (who is white) was asked to join the Academy just after 2016 and as part of the new intake, she felt a particular responsibility to diversify the nominations. “I want to wedge open the door for a new generation of storytellers – help them in any way I can. The film industry should be leading the way in terms of acknowledging stories and storytellers from all backgrounds – we will have a richer industry and a broader audience if we have a greater range of stories,” she says.

Progress v setbacks

The past five years have certainly seen a broader range of stories and people celebrated: in 2017, there was Moonlight’s historic best picture triumph, that of a black, queer love story winning over the much bigger-budget – and whiter – La La Land; and then last year came Parasite’s victory in the same category, making it the first ever non-English-language winner.

In 2019, Spike Lee got his long-overdue Academy recognition with a best adapted screenplay award for BlacKkKlansman; and last year, Taika Waititi became the first indigenous man to win an award, in the same category, for JoJo Rabbit. Meanwhile black actor Mahershala Ali won two supporting actor Oscars in three years.

But that’s not to say the Oscars’ critics can rest easy: 2020 still saw only a single non-white acting nominee and the 2019 awards awarded Green Book, a turgid and extremely problematic film about race relations, the biggest prize of the night. Green Book represented the worst sort of “progress”, in that, similarly to Driving Miss Daisy, which won best picture 30 years earlier, it used racism as a tool to explore the conversion of a white, bigoted protagonist. Green Book took the story of Don Shirley, a real-life celebrated black gay pianist, relegated him to a supporting role and centred the film around his white driver. It was a disheartening night for much of the black film industry, with Spike Lee stating in the post-Oscar press conference that, “the ref made a bad call,” and many Oscar audience members of colour, including Jordan Peele, reportedly refusing to applaud.

However the 2021 ceremony, delayed two months to 25 April because of the pandemic, does offer long-term hope, with some of the strongest nominees for years. After the nominations were announced, there was, as always, a conversation, and think pieces, about surprises (was LaKeith Stanfield’s central turn in Judas and the Black Messiah really a supporting role?) and snubs (looking at you, Delroy Lindo). But, unlike previous years there was no widespread egregious exclusivity, with nine out of the 20 nominations given to actors of colour. Chloé Zhao became the first woman of colour to be nominated for director. As Lodge puts it, “That only one of this year’s best director nominees is a white American man also seems to me symptomatic of that incremental change.

Having met their goal the Academy made a further pledge, that from their 2025 awards onwards, films would be eligible only if they meet two of four self-created diversity “standards”, which variously require women, racial and ethnic groups, LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities to be represented in some form in front of or behind the camera or be given some sort of paid training opportunity as part of production. The effectiveness of this measure remains to be seen but it certainly bodes well that the Academy has sought more means of inclusivity rather than rest on its laurels.

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