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Lack of representation dispirits the Oscars race

The Academy Awards have long been the barometer for film, recognizing what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deems the best technical achievements, performances and films of the year. Winning an Oscar is often seen as the crowning achievement of one’s career in the film industry.

However, despite its prestige, the Academy has faced several years of backlash for the lack of diversity in its nominations and inability to reflect the increasing number of voices putting their stories to the big screen. According to a 2012 study conducted by the Los Angeles Times, 5,000 of the Academy’s 5,765 members were 94 percent white, 77 percent male and 86 percent age 50 or older. The Academy has invited more than 2,000 new members in an attempt to combat this issue, resulting in a 2016 class comprising 46 percent women and 41 percent people of color.

The new Academy makeup seems to be a distinct mark of the changing times. In 2016, “Moonlight,” a nuanced triptych of an African-American coming to terms with his sexuality, won Best Picture over “La La Land,” a musical ode to traditional cinema with a predominantly white cast. Last year, Greta Gerwig became the fifth woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for her directorial debut in “Lady Bird.”

Nevertheless, when the 2020 Academy Award nominations were announced on Monday, Jan. 13, all five Best Director nominees were men and 19 out of the 20 acting nominees were white. The assertion that the best achievements in film this year were primarily at the hands of white men is simply untrue. ”Little Women” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” are only two of the many female-led films to garner critical acclaim; “Us” and “Parasite” subverted genre to create inventive and original stories with people of color at their centers. The Academy’s failure to recognize the increasingly diverse scope of storytelling in the industry today is just that: a failure — a failure to change its reactionary core of members, adapt to a changing industry and maintain its credibility as the most prestigious awards show.

Since 2008, the percentage of female directors by award is 4.9 percent at the Directors Guild of America Awards, 4.5 percent at the Golden Globes, and the Oscars as the most exclusive at 3.2 percent. The Independent Spirit Awards is the exception, nominating eight women for Best Director in the last four years and proving that it is possible to award female directors the recognition they deserve.

The lack of awards show recognition for female directors largely stems from the engrained perception that directing is a man’s job. When a male director is nominated, it’s because he deserves it. When a female director is nominated, it’s to fill a quota or conform to the increasingly politically correct entertainment landscape. In the 92 years of Oscars history, only five women have received a Best Director nomination and only one — Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker,” a film centered on the male experience in war, moreover — has won.

A similar perception extends to the acting nominees this year. The only person of color nominated in an acting category this year is Cynthia Erivo for her portrayal as Harriet Tubman in “Harriet.” It is somewhat problematic that the only acting nomination for a person of color is for a role of a slave, albeit a very important and heroic historical figure. Furthermore, several people of color have been overlooked despite garnering critical acclaim for their performances. Lupita Nyong’o dominated film critics group awards for her chilling performance in “Us” but was ignored by the larger awards shows. Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen failed to secure Oscar nominations for their touching performances in “The Farewell,” a film that won Best Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards only to be shut out of the Oscars.

Whenever the glaring lack of representation is brought up, many often argue that nominations should be based on merit rather than gender or race. And as they should be — nominations should be awarded to the most deserving. However, when there has been historic and systemic exclusion of women and people of color from the industry, even when they produce some of the best films of the year, it is clear that there is more to the Oscars than awarding the most deserving.

2019 was a defining year for female-directed and female-centered films. Greta Gerwig brought a fresh voice to a classic tale with “Little Women,” which garnered six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture; Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is the second-best reviewed film of the year, with a 98 percent Rotten Tomatoes critic score and 95/100 score on Metacritic; Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical “The Farewell” told a poignant story of Asian-American identity; Lorene Scafaria directed “Hustlers,” which grossed $160 million at the box office. There are many more films I have not mentioned that would be as deserving of acknowledgment and, yet, out of the many acclaimed female-led films, “Little Women” was the only film to receive Oscar nominations.

In addition, while the main focus this year has been on the directing and acting categories, it is equally important to champion diversity and inclusion in all sectors of the industry.

Many will dismiss the importance of the Oscars. The number of awards or nominations that a film receives is not an indication of the film’s quality. However, the results of awards shows are important for a different reason. The Oscars serve not only as a snapshot for the films of the past year, but also as a barometer for which types of films get financed, which people will get further opportunities in the industry and, ultimately, which stories are allowed to be told.

It will be a long time before the Academy begins to rid itself of its biases against nominating women and people of color. It may never truly happen. Regardless, where the Academy lacks the courage and open-mindedness to embrace diversity, countless films are daring to champion that same diversity and tell their own singular stories — and that’s something worth celebrating.

By Sarah Aie, Online editor-in-chief
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