Tuesday, March 28

The 95th Oscars — Taking diversity to the extreme?


Yeoh is a ‘Best Actress’ Oscar nominee through her work in ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’. — AFP photo

THE nominations for the 95th Academy Awards – better known as ‘the Oscars’ – were released last week, and the presentation ceremony would be held at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles this March 12, when the results of its voting by all its 9,921 (as at 2020) members would be announced in a live telecast.

The Oscars ceremonies held last year and the previous few years had been met with some controversial events and criticisms. Last year’s, held on March 27, had triggered a much heated debate on social media after actor Will Smith had slapped comedian host Chris Rock after the latter quipped about the former’s wife Jada Pinkett.

An Academy decision to not present eight Oscar categories on the live presentation was met with a storm of criticisms and was described as ‘insulting’ by numerous Academy members who had spoken with the press at the time.

In 2020, the Oscars had faced one of its most heated backlashes, that of race and sex. That year, all the main nominations for ‘Best Actor’ were white and all of the nominated directors were men.

In a scathing op-ed piece written by journalist Elahe Izadi for ‘The Washington Post’ with the headline ‘The Oscars’ long history of getting called out for lack of diversity’, it had focused on how the Academy Awards had done a poor job of recognising the work of people who were not white.

During the 2020 nomination process, only one black actor received a nomination that year – Cynthia Erivo for ‘Best Actress’ for ‘Harriet’ – she had also received a nod for ‘Best Song’.

Flashback to some 32 years ago to actor Eddie Murphy, when presenting the winner for ‘Best Picture’, he had told the audience at the time: “The way it’s been going, every 20 years we (as a race) get one (an Oscar), so we ain’t due till about 2004 – so by then, this will have all blown over!”

Flash forward to 2002 when Halle Berry won ‘Best Actress’ for ‘Monster’s Ball’ – the first black woman to win in that category – while weeping onstage, she acknowledged her peers as well as the black women who had been nominated before her.

“This moment is so much bigger than me…and it’s for every nameless faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”

Twenty-one years later, on Jan 24, 2023, seven different actors and actresses of colour were nominated in three different major acting categories: Michelle Yeoh for ‘Best Actress’ in ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ (EEAAO); Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas also for ‘Best Actress’ (Blonde); Ke Huy Quan for ‘Best Supporting Actor’ (EEAAO); Angela Bassett for ‘Best Supporting Actress’ (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever); Stephanie Hsu for ‘Best Supporting Actress’ (EEAAO); Hong Chau for ‘Best Supporting Actress’ (The Whale), and Brian Tyree Henry for ‘Best Supporting Actor’ (Causeway).

Combo photo shows the ‘Best Actress’ nominees for the 95th Academy Awards: (from left) Ana de Armas, Yeoh, British actress Andrea Riseborough (To Leslie), US actress Michelle Williams (The Fabelmans), and Blanchett (Tar). — AFP photo

It is a statistical fact that in 2022, approximately 81 per cent of the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences identified as white; furthermore 67 per cent of these Oscar voters were men. Only two per cent of the Academy members were blacks, with the Latinos less than two per cent.

Since 2000, there have been 72 actors and actresses who won the Academy Awards; 60 were white and only 12 were people of colour. In 2015, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was birthed after nominations for that year’s Oscars failed to include any people of colour in the Top 4 acting categories. Since then, every year’s nominations have been met with increased scrutiny.

Shall we take a look back at the Oscar’s founding mission statement and what it had originally set out to do 95 years ago?

The Academy, which is today made up of almost 10,000 professionals working in the film industry in all its many various segments both creative and technical, gives out awards every year to the best movies, performances and behind-the-scenes work throughout the film industry. Its set goal is to advance and to uphold excellence within the motion picture industry.

But has the Academy done its job according to its founders’ early statement, mission and commitment? Many believe it has been found wanting.

Just looking at the past nominations for the ‘Best Director’ category, for instance – only five women have ever been nominated, with just one winning – Kathryn Bigelow for ‘The Hurt Locker’ in 2010.

Oscar nods have been overwhelmingly white: only 6.3 per cent have gone to black creatives, while 2.6 per cent to Latinos, and barely 1.4 per cent to Asians.

However, things are slowly changing. This decade has seen some improvement, particularly in the last five years after the Academy membership ‘got woke’.

It was as if someone had held up a mirror to their collective face and they did not like what they saw!

There was some recalibrations done – for example, Korea’s ‘Parasite’ was a great example of when they sort of recognised ‘a great international movie’ unlike what was previously just considered to be a ‘Foreign Language Feature Film’!

Parasite won the ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Director’ awards in 2020.

The Academy itself, too, is making changes in leaps; for instance, last year’s new memberships were swelled by 45 per cent made up of women, with 36 per cent from the under-represented ethnic groups and 49 per cent were international rather than USA-based members.

Hence, the noticeably more diverse range of actors nominated in the four main acting categories this year.

I was personally most impressed by the 10 nominations for ‘Best Picture’. It is a very mixed bag, with no clear hot favourite and for once, it would be extremely difficult to predict the winner.

The biopic ‘Elvis’, directed by Baz Luhrmann (left) and starring Butler in the titular role, receives eight Academy Award nominations, including for ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Actor’. — AFP photo

The joke in the industry is that the Academy is trying to woo back its fast-dwindling audience to its live telecast by purposely picking the planet’s three biggest draws – Tom Cruise, James Cameron and Elvis!

The fact that the shoo-ins like Steven Spielberg’s latest together with Australian-US actress Cate Blanchett and Yeoh playing to their respectively broad and very-ardent fan-bases, were not lost on audiences worldwide. Certainly, all three had excelled at their roles in their respective movies too.

Rounding up the 10 were indie darlings and superb masterpieces of world cinema of international appeal – among the earlier are ‘Women Talking’ and ‘Triangle of Sadness’; and the latter being both ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ and ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’.

After having witnessed what had happened at the recently-concluded Golden Globes when ‘diversity’ had won the day, I have a feeling that the Academy members voting in this year’s Oscars might also want to take a leaf out of their book and vote not according to their own highly individualistic and objective opinions of what they know to be the best, but more in line with their ‘woke’ and subjective view, which might artificially add a tainted ‘correction of perceived past slights and wrongs’ – eventually concluding on a major misconception that would certainly set Hollywood down a most dubious and shady path down a rocky road for the industry as a whole.

In other words, I hope that Blanchett would triumph over Yeoh in the ‘Best Actress’ category; and that Brendan Gleeson (The Banshees of Inisherin) would win over Ke Huy Quan in the ‘Supporting Actor’ category!

For ‘Best Picture’, I would love to see ‘Elvis’ win, but I think the typically white American male voters would either go for ‘Top Gun’ or ‘The Banshees’.

Colin Farrell (‘Best Actor’ nominee for ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’) and Bassett appear to be shoo-ins for their respective categories. As for the big prize for directing, it should be either Spielberg (The Fabelmans) or Todd Field (Tar).

One thing is for sure – it was a great year for the movies, and let’s all give diversity in films all the support and respect due.

At the same time, also remember to neither go overboard, be overwhelmed, be dictated nor be intimidated by it and its many proponents.

Dim the lights – let’s enjoy the movies!