Oscars 2020: Why this year's awards race has thrown forward some troubling problems

Kyle Buchanan addresses how some of the most exciting and diverse performances and films of the season are being overlooked

Saturday 11 January 2020 09:11
Women filmmakers, including Greta Gerwig (pictured with her partner Noah Baumbach), are regarded by awards groups as on the fringe
Women filmmakers, including Greta Gerwig (pictured with her partner Noah Baumbach), are regarded by awards groups as on the fringe

The week before the Oscar nominations on Monday (13 January) was meant to be the most exciting phase of awards season yet: after a glittery Golden Globes ceremony on Sunday, many of the most important industry guilds and groups weighed in with their own nominations during the following two days, helping to clarify the Oscar race and winnow down the ultimate list of contenders.

So why are we in no mood to celebrate?

Because that narrowing list has begun to exclude not just some of the most exciting performances and films of the season, but also many of the movies directed by women or featuring people of colour. And though the academy, which is due to release its nominations next week, has taken great pains to diversify itself since the years of #OscarsSoWhite, this past week suggests that other awards bodies still have a lot of soul-searching to do, and that this issue may require a total shift in what’s considered weighty and worthy.

Just look at Bafta, the British awards group that issued a list of nominations on Tuesday that failed to include even a single actor of colour. British-Nigerian actress Cynthia Erivo picked up a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Harriet, but Bafta snubbed her; ditto Lupita Nyong’o, so tremendous in Us, as well as Awkwafina, who has just won a Golden Globe for her performance in The Farewell.

That movie’s scene-stealing grandma, Zhao Shuzhen, was similarly left out of Bafta’s Supporting Actress race, as was Hustlers star Jennifer Lopez, though Bafta still found room in that category to nominate Margot Robbie for playing two different blondes. Other actors of colour who turned in some of the most critically acclaimed work of the year, including Song Kang-ho and Cho Yeo Jeong from Parasite and Eddie Murphy from Dolemite Is My Name, were also excluded.

Does Bafta have a blind spot when it comes to race? I’ll just note that this group has failed to ever nominate Denzel Washington or Morgan Freeman, even though the two men have 13 Oscar nominations for acting and three Academy Award statuettes between them. That’s one awfully concerted cold shoulder.

But the problem extends far past Bafta: over the past decade, all but one of the Oscar wins for actors of colour have come in the supporting categories. Year after year, actors like Mahershala Ali, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Mo’Nique, and Nyong’o have been asked to pose with their Oscars alongside the invariably white lead-acting winners, illustrating the notion that even when these talented performers triumph, they’re still seen as less than central.

After all, it wasn’t until 2019 that Nyong’o and Spencer finally got starring vehicles to call their own, while Ali, now a two-time Supporting Actor winner, is still waiting to shoot his first real movie lead. Shouldn’t their Oscars have qualified them for such a glow-up long ago? When I look at this year’s Leading Actor categories, where white performers are safely ensconced and every actor of colour is thought to be an on-the-bubble pick for Oscar, I wonder if Hollywood is still locked into a pernicious pattern.

Things aren’t much better for female filmmakers, who continue to be regarded by awards groups as figures on the fringe. The Golden Globes, Directors Guild of America and Bafta all nominated a list of five men for the top directing prize, despite a sterling year for women behind the camera.

That means those Best Director races left out Greta Gerwig (Little Women), Lulu Wang (The Farewell), Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers) and Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), among other worthy contenders. And while the DGA category for first-time filmmakers included exciting new voices like Mati Diop (Atlantics), Alma Har’el (Honey Boy) and Melina Matsoukas (Queen & Slim), none of those women earned a nomination for the DGA’s top feature-film trophy.

Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up
‘Little Women’ director Greta Gerwig has been shut out of Best Director nominations

Instead, the guild nominated Martin Scorsese (The Irishman), Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Sam Mendes (1917), Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) and Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit). Both Bafta and the Golden Globes substituted Joker director Todd Phillips for Waititi, but no matter how you slice it, these are male-dominated movies, and nearly all of them feature a panoply of violent acts (with murders that include stabbings, hangings, shootings and death by flamethrower).

We’re conditioned to think of these sorts of films as more “important” since they’re what the Oscars have historically canonised, but the result is that the latest crop of movies by women, films that are more human-sized and less murder-strewn, are afforded little awards consideration. Even the male-directed contender Marriage Story, with its comparatively intimate focus on a family navigating divorce, has had trouble launching its filmmaker, Noah Baumbach, into the Best Director category over a slew of men telling more muscular stories.

The Oscar trend lines here are not encouraging. Despite saving a slot two years ago for Gerwig’s Lady Bird, the Best Director category has become increasingly focused on audacious technical spectacle, the likes of which women are rarely allowed to make. So many of the female directors in contention this year had to tell their stories with slim budgets and striking visual economy, while the men often had big money, complicated shots and engorged running times at their disposal.

Alas, when it comes to awards voters, the most directing is often considered the best directing. And unless women are given more money and freedom to make their films, or voters come to understand that a performance-driven drama is every bit the directorial achievement of a whiz-bang war movie, female filmmakers may continue to be shut out.

When pressed about these sorts of snubs, awards voters will often deflect: their job, they insist, is merely to select the best possible contenders, regardless of race or gender. Still, the homogeneous group of gatekeepers that came before us still affects so much of what we consider worthy of canonisation. Changing those entrenched attitudes will require not just diverse membership rolls, but a willingness to investigate who and what we deem important. It won’t be easy to celebrate the wins to come when it’s clear that so much is still lost.

© New York Times

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in