Film & Television

The Oscars: Celebrating the Best in Film,
Except for Women and People of Color 

Awards Season Wrap-Up

For the past few years, the Academy Awards have struggled with diversity. (That’s actually a bit misleading — the Oscars have always had a diversity issue. It’s just that in the last few years, the media has called them out on it.) This year, once again, there were no women recognized with nominations for best director (arguably the most important of the individual awards). There was also only one black actor — Cynthia Erivo for Harriet — nominated out of a field of twenty. The hashtags #OscarsSoWhite; #MeToo; and #TimesUp resurfaced, as did a new movement.

Using an interesting and decidedly digital age tactic, #GiveHerABreak provided an online portal to a live stream of the Oscars. However, instead of showing the ads that ABC, the Oscars’ official network, had sold, they used the commercial breaks to highlight films by women that had been overlooked by the Academy. Alma Har’el, Israeli-American director of last fall’s acclaimed Honey Boy tweeted the link and pointed out that over the past 92 years, the Academy has only nominated five female directors. Her message: “They stole our Oscars, so we stole their ads.” The morning after the awards program, the Give Her a Break site posted a hopeful if slightly sarcastic message, “Thanks to the thousands of people who tuned in. We hope to not have to see you next year.”

Given the situation, I expected to hear a lot about the gender and racial diversity issues on the red carpet. Surprisingly, very few people addressed it. Perhaps the Academy sent out a message that they didn’t want politics to interfere with the industry’s biggest celebration. Or perhaps the more progressive members of the film community are just plain tired of fighting an uphill battle. By and large, red carpet conversations were friendly, joyful, and friction-free. And, there were intelligent questions on various films and filmmakers directed toward women as well as men — at least the interviewers didn’t revert back to the days of “Who are you wearing?” 

One actress did make a powerful statement in her choice of evening wear, although it wasn’t immediately noticeable. Natalie Portman (who famously prefaced her presentation of Best Director at the 2018 Golden Globes by announcing “and the all-male nominees are”) wore a black and gold dress topped with a black cape that was embroidered with the names of all of the women directors who had been snubbed. “I wanted to recognize the women who were not recognized for their incredible work this year in my subtle way,” she told the L.A. Times.

Janelle Monáe wasn’t so subtle. The singer and actress best known for her roles in Hidden Figures and this year’s Harriet, began the show’s high-spirited opening number with a tribute to Mr. Rogers and It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, but quickly moving into protests about films that had been overlooked. “The Oscars, it’s so white, it’s time to come alive,” she sang, then mentioned Dolamite, the predominantly black film by Eddie Murphy. Her dancers wore outfits evocative of other movies that were snubbed, such as Midsomar, Queen and Slim, and Hustlers. Toward the end of the number, Monáe spoke up for better representation of both gender and race. “Tonight, we celebrate the women who directed phenomenal films,” she said with a touch of irony. “I’m happy to stand here as a black queer artist telling stories. Happy black history month.”

The audience, who enjoyed the music (including a guest appearance by Billy Porter in an Elton John-influenced ensemble) also seemed a bit uncomfortable with Monáe’s underlying message. That discomfort continued with non-hosts (the show was promoted again as being “hostless”) Steve Martin and Chris Rock. They poked fun at attendees Brad Pitt and Jeff Bezos, then decided to address gender disparity. “So many great directors this year,” Rock started. “I don’t know, Chris,” Martin countered, “I thought there was something missing from the list this year.” Without missing a beat, Rock responded, “Vaginas?” They both agreed. Praising Erivo for her portrayal of Tubman, Rock added, “She did such a great job in Harriet hiding black people that the Academy got her to hide all the black nominees. Cynthia,” he asked, “Is Eddie Murphy under this stage?” Martin soberly pointed out that there’s been some progress, “In 1929, there were no black acting nominees.” Rock quickly rejoined, “Now in 2020, we got one.”

If the audience was concerned that these observations (and admonishments) would continue throughout the evening, they were soon able to relax. There were surprisingly few political or social statements made by any of the winners.


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  • Arlene McCarthy February 11, 2020 at 11:34 am

    I welcome the day when the Oscars are given to the best film, actor, etc. because of their work and not have color or gender be a factor.