Parasite vs. The Oscars So (Mostly) White

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Oscar season has come and gone and in what seems to be a ongoing problem with the Academy is the lack of diversity in their nominations. Yes, once again the major categories showed a lack of people of color. Only one Black woman was nominated for a major award,  Cynthia Erivo for Best Actress in Harriett. Akwafina may have made history and wowed the Golden Globes voters for her performance in The Farewell, but apparently she did not make the cut for the final list of nominees for Best Actress.

No female directors were nominated this year despite Greta Gerwig’s film Little Women making the list for Best Picture. Tom Hanks was acknowledged with a Best Supporting Actor nomination for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, yet it’s director, who used very unique techniques in filming to recreate the feel of the sets and the show, Marrielle Heller, did not get such acknowledgement. Lulu Wang, who directed one of my favorite films of the year, the aforementioned The Farewell, was passed over for all categories including her screenplay.

I recently saw a comment on social media to mention any other good films by female directors. So along with the above mentioned ones, we can add Alma Har’el (Honey Boy), Kasi Lemmons (Harriet), and Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers). It is very shortsited to think that no women diretors had directed anygood movies all year. and it just onfirms an inherent bias.

Now, let me be clear about the films that were nominated. I did manage to see a good portion of the major nominees and none of them I felt were undeserving of acknowledgment. However some of the films that I felt were slighted were just as deserving or even more so. But the Academy once again shows odd ways of nominating films.

Some films were almost automatic because of the names behind it like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman or Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Both were fine films but neither of them is a reflection of the best work by their directors.  The Irishman was a very good film but it is inevitable that it will be unfairly compared to Goodfellas yet it was Scorsese’s most ambitious film. I believe it got default nomination out of sympathy. As plodding and boring at some points that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was, The Academy loves films about itself and about the good old days in Hollywood. These two films were going to automatically suck up some air as far as nominations, especially with two nominations for supporting actors going to The Irisman actors Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. Sorry ,Tzi Ma (The Farewell), no room for you on the bus.

Yet somehow amidst the no surprise nominees, there  somended up some surprising winners. Bon Joon-ho won an Oscar for his original screenplay of Parasite. Taika Waititi was the first Maori to win an Academy Award for his adapted screenplay for Jojo Rabbit. You could feel something was in the air as the Academy audience was clearly cheering Bong Joon-ho and Parasite on during every category it was nominated for was mentioned. It was without question the favorite and eventual winner for best International film. The best screenplay win for Parasite was a nice surprise especially since it is a script originally in Korean. Winning International Film Oscar was probably the safest bet of the night.

When it came down to Best Director, I don’t think anyone was as surprised to win as Bong Joon-ho. Afterall, the other nominees were the likes of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Sam Mendes (1917), and Todd Phillips (Joker). Like I said, I can’t argue with the choice of nominees, despite the lack of female representation. Yet history was made that night as Bong Joon-ho became the first South Korean director to win Best Director.

Parasite’s mark on Oscar history was sealed when the ever elegant, and not at all looking 82 years old, Jane Fonda announced that Parasite was the Best Picture of the year. Bong Joon-ho ended up tying none other than Walt Disney as the only person to win four Oscars in one night. Parasite was the first Korean film to win a screenplay award. As stated before, Bong Joon-ho was the first Korean director to win a Best Director Award. It was the first Korean film to ever be nominated for an International Oscar, and it won. Parasite was not only the first Korean film to win Best Picture it was the first film foreign language film in the entire 92 year history of the Academy Awards to win Best Picture.

The significance of Parasite’s success is hard to say at the moment, but it will definitely not be forgotten. Hopefully the Hollywood machine won’t grind up Bong Joon-ho like it tried to do with John Woo. Bong has already had some critical success with American productions such as Snowpiercer and Okja. He seems savvy and is genuinely loved by the Hollywood elite. We are also in a great era for many filmmakers to make films the way they want to despite the flood of remakes and tentpole blockbuster comic book franchises. Bong Joon-ho also knows he doesn’t need to make $200 million budgeted films to convey his vision.

One thing for certain, despite the Oscars so White Strike Back, people of color still managed to overcome the lack of diversity. Hair Love which took home the Oscar for Best Animated Short, is a beautiful animated short about an African American father trying to style his daughter’s hair for the first time. It comes at a time where natural Black hair is coming under fire by unfair and frankly, bigoted, discrimination.  One of the latest examples is of a Texas teen who was told that he would not be allowed to attend his own graduation if he did not cut his dreadlocks.

Am I saying that race and gender should be considered in the nominating process? Absolutely not. That would really not make sense. The problem is that in some ways the Academy has not considered many films featuring people of color  in their nominating process because they probably had not seen it or were uninterested in seeing it. The buzz and previous awards (Cannes Palme d’Or, The Golden Globes) given to Parasite certainly provided momentum to the Academy and especially the voters. Perhaps the nominating committee were uninterested in a movie about strippers drugging and rolling rich Wall Street bros for their money (Hustlers). Or perhaps they were uninterested in seeing, yet alone nominating a personal film about a Chinese family lying to the family matriarch about her cancer (The Farewell).The Farewell was also mostly in Mandarin. Maybe Academy members were confused whether it was an American film or an International film.

I myself was certainly rooting for Parasite for the best film of the year but having recently seen 1917 I absolutely thought it would win. But perhaps why Parasite is so popular and so loved is that even after watching the film, days later you are still thinking about it and the layers of messages within it. 1917 is a brilliant film from any standpoint and Roger Deakins hands down deserves the Oscar for Best Cinematography. But it does not have you thinking about the social economic implications of it weeks later and looking for and examining hidden messages. Parasite sticks with you long afterwards. And that is great example of the effectiveness of cinema to tell a story.

The Academy should not take the blame for the lack of diversity. Hollywood, for decades, has relegated persons of color in front or behind the camera to second consideration. Certainly some strides are being made, yet without fail, when a female director or a person of color is announced for a major project, especially a tentpole blockbuster product it is inevitable that “fans” pile on about the wokeness of Hollywood and agendas of Social Justice Warriors. Since when has being an advocate of social justice and being aware of disparities been a bad thing? It’s time to own and take those terms and wear them proudly as a badge. Eventually Hollywood, as well as the most prestigious awards given up will genuinely reflect the world they are trying to portray .

For more information about the way Hollywood has treated minorities read The Hollywood Jim Crow which I reviewed last year.

There is also Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism by Nancy Wang Yuen which I will be writing a review f down the road.

Review: The Hollywood Jim Crow

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Maryann Erigha has definitely done quite a bit of research for her book, The Hollywood Jim Crow. It’s an open secret that Hollywood has embedded in itself a racial belief and divide that with a few exceptions, Black directed and starred films are not bankable. Though primarily focused on Blacks in the film industry, the author tangentially applies this to Asian and Hispanic led films.

This idea is challenged with researched numbers dispelling this idea, though. Not only do Black helmed films do well, they proportionally outperform. The author primarily focuses on Hollywood’s treatment of Black directors and studio reluctance to dole out films of significant budgets to black directors. I do not dispute that there is significant racial bias in favor of white filmmakers, the numbers prove the author right. Of course there is a reason Peter Jackson directed all three Lord of the Rings movies, he was also the producer and writer. It was his project from the get go. That it ended up as big a budget and as huge a franchise as it ended up being was a gamble that paid off. Erigha used this as an example without the context of the background.

In bringing up Black Panther, the author points out that it took Marvel and Disney eighteen movies to hire a Black director for their films. Without a doubt, Black Panther was a financial success and it scored well critically as well. And let’s face some reality about Marvel movies, part of their success is their ability to fit as a whole narrative almost like a multi-part single movie. Directors are basically work for hire executing a big narrative. There is very little reason for this sort of racial disparity.

Those are blockbusters and The Hollywood Jim Crow points out as many successes as “bankable” stars or directors have had, their have been just as many flops. Yet Hollywood still hands out the big bucks and the projects. There was hesitation of having Denzel Washington star in The Equalizer, for instance. Now, Denzel Washington is probably one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, yet Hollywood still has this belief that a person of color can’t carry an action film, especially overseas. It did quite well. And for the first time in Washington’s long career, he signed on for a sequel.

As it is, studio execs, either purposefully or not, have little to no faith in films by Black filmmakers or starring Black actors in lead roles. And when those films come around, they are lower in budget and given less marketing than their equivalent movies of similar budget. Filmmakers like Tyler Perry have had more consistent profit in the box office despite lower market saturation. Is it because he appeals to a niche market and his films will only be as profitable as what his lower budgets are? We don’t know that for sure.

Although Erigha presents her facts well, at times, those facts are repeated a few pages later. Also, I did have some confusion on whether it was a good thing that Black directors were given projects with primarily White casts or not. Also the book does mention that many Black directors are pigeon-holed into making Black-urban films – characters struggling to get out of their “ghetto” life.  To me, those are fine films but it’s the same as asking a Chinese actor if they can perform martial arts for their character. One anecdote from a director says “I make movies about human.” And the human experience as far as cinema is concerned encompasses every experience of our lives. A recent example from this year of a human story, but also a Black story is the excellent If Beale Street Could Talk.

The book is definitely an academic work. The dead giveaway is that it is published by NYU Press. The Subject matter is compelling and certainly relatable, but at times it does come across as dry. It relies on published anecdotes, and figures but  does not seem to reach out to some of the personalities that the author talks about. It would have been nice to hear from Spike Lee or Chris Rock directly for the book rather than rely on previous interviews. It may have provided more current perspectives, if only a few comments.

Not mentioned in the book as much is also the way Asian actors and directors have been treated in Hollywood. As big a star as Jackie Chan is, he’s never had his own starring vehicle and been paired with a partner for market purposes. It is only recently in the rather serious film from him The Foreigner that he was the main lead, albeit, Pierce Brosnan was the villain. Asian directors, such as Justin Lin, and James Wan have had better success, though. That success in getting the big budget films comes from someone at one time giving them that big budget seat at the table. Not everyone gets that chance.

In the end, much of the author’s arguments are a call to action for better representation not only in the director’s char but in the studio boardroom as well. It is about the money, but that buttresses against old Hollywood beliefs about marketability and bankability. There is quite a lot to digest in such a short book, but it is well worth a read and a read on hand reference for those who don’t buy into the myth that people of color don’ make money in the box office.

I received The Hollywood Jim Crow as an advanced galley through edelweiss.com but it does not effect the positives I feel for this book. It is educational and well-informed. It could have even been wider in scope. But the author made a conscious choice to focus primarily on Black filmmakers and I don’t fault that choice. It is well worth a read.

It is my hope that studio execs give this a read or at least get an intern to read and summarize for them, because it holds a mirror to Hollywood’s shortcomings when it comes to representation behind the camera and within the industry. I seriously doubt it though. But as demographics change, Hollywood will have to as well if they want to stay profitable.