The Academy Awards have taken ample criticism in recent years surrounding the diversity (or lack thereof) in nominations. The 92nd annual Oscar Awards that took place this past weekend did little to keep this criticism at bay.
During the Saturday Night Live episode that followed the release of the nominations list, Melissa Villaseñor starred in a skit that went through a handful of these recognized films to the tune of an original satirical song with a chorus “White Male Rage.” She begins by singing about the plot of Best Picture nom Joker before inevitably boiling the film down at the end of her sung synopsis to “the thing that this movie is really about [which] is white male rage, white male rage, white male rage.” Through the audience’s laughter, Villaseñor proceeded to work her way through a list of additional high profile films of the year like The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit, 1917, and Toy Story 4, insinuating they all contain plots that strip down to white male rage.
Well done, Villaseñor. I think that sums it up nicely. Let’s look at who this white male rage took space from at the 2020 Oscars.
Outside of the success of foreign film Parasite, the Oscars stuck within its comfort zone. Only this time, they decided to decorate the outermost appearance of the live show with stars of all demographics, assigning them as speakers and announcers. Therefore, at a mere glance, the show presented as diverse. But that diversity didn’t penetrate below the surface at all. To quote an article in The Conversation, “Indeed, the optics of this year’s Oscars represented liberal ‘inclusion’ at its peak, with Janelle Monáe and Billy Porter kicking off the show. There was also a land acknowledgment by Maori Indigenous screenplay award-winner Taika Waititi and many of the announcers were white women or people of colour—in a year of largely white and male nominees.” In other words, people in marginalized groups took the stage primarily to hand white men awards.
The opening number of the Oscars referenced snubbed films of the year, criticizing the whiteness of the nominations and the blatant disregard for female directors. Backup dancers appeared in costumes from primarily POC-focused movies like Us, which did not receive any nominations at all. Stepping out onto the Oscars red carpet and gracing us with her pretty political presence, Natalie Portman sported a Dior cape embroidered with the names of female directors not nominated this year: Melina Matsoukas, Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang, Kasi Lemmons, Lorene Scafaria, Marielle Heller, and Alma Har’el.
Only one actor of color, Cynthia Erivo, was nominated for Harriet. Needless to specify, Cynthia Erivo was not the only actor of color with an exquisite performance in a major film. Not a single actor in Parasite was up for an award, despite its success in other categories. Jennifer Lopez of Hustlers didn’t see the ballot either. Akwafina, who won the Golden Globe for her work in The Farewell, also didn’t receive a nomination. The achievements of female directors were also neglected at this year’s awards.The Golden Globes, which are traditionally a way to predict Academy Award success, undoubtedly diversified (at least the acting) nominations in ways that far exceeded the Academy, with Jennifer Lopez, Cynthia Erivo, Ana de Armas and others receiving nominations. Come on Oscars, you need to step up your game.
According to Variety, only five women in the 92 years of the Oscars have been nominated for Best Director, with Kathryn Bigelow being the only woman recipient of the award in 2010 for the film The Hurt Locker. For the 2020 Oscars, films like Little Women, Hustlers, The Farewell, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood all had other major nominations, including Best Picture. Who does the voting committee think is responsible for these works of art?
Before her work this season directing Little Women, female director Greta Gerwig was the mind behind the 2017 film Lady Bird, which was nominated for an impressive five Oscars and scored a whopping 99% critics approval on Rotten Tomatoes. That year, she made history by being the fifth and most recent woman to appear on the Best Director ballot, although she did not win. Fast forward to this year’s Oscars, her acclaimed feminist adaption of the novel Little Women acquired four nominations, the most notable being Best Picture. Greta Gerwig was, as mentioned earlier, not nominated in the 2020 Best Director category. The film, rated 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, took home one award.
I want you to take a wild (or quite educated) guess on which category Hollywood found this primarily female-made film deserving of. If your guess was costumes, you are correct. While costume designer Jacqueline Durran produced exquisite work, the film and the women involved deserve more than just recognition for, ultimately, their visual appearance under elaborate 19th century gowns. Had the Academy recognized this feminist piece in other categories as well, the costume win wouldn’t feel like such a backhanded compliment. To restate, I am by no means criticizing Durran’s victory, or minimizing the film’s accomplishment in this sector. But by only allowing space for this aspect of the film to receive the praise it deserved, Hollywood made clear what single part of this film they care about. The women in the film are sights to see, not actresses, directors, or anything else.
It’s safe to assume that the staggering number of artists of color and women left off the ballot confirms that Melissa Villaseñor was correct: white male rage took up the most space, and walked home with the biggest prizes of the night.