The Oscar nominations have been released, and the conversation is the same as it has been for the past four years. With change happening incredibly slowly and the nomination pool looking the same every year, it’s worth asking—do the Oscars serve a purpose?
John Cho and Issa Rae presented the list of Oscar contenders on Jan. 13 that will officially be voted on by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences membership. The nomination ceremony is itself indicative of the aged pomp and circumstance the Oscars season has come to symbolize for many outside of the film industry. The ceremony may have made sense in the ‘60s, but today, it strikes most as an odd formality.
The nominations will be voted on by the Academy’s 7,000 members, of which the public knows very little. A 2016 study by the Los Angeles Times found that the Academy’s voting members are 91% white and 76% male. This was brought up frequently during the past couple years in the #OscarsSoWhite conversation, a hashtag that brought attention to two consecutive years of all-white acting nominees.
The #OscarsSoWhite conversation hit around the same time as an equally important movement in the past couple years of the award season—#MeToo. The combination of the two hashtags, along with embarrassing blunders such as the Moonlight/Lalaland fiasco, an ill-fated attempt at a “Best Popular Film” award and a controversy over Kevin Hart that led to the 2019 show being (refreshingly) hostless has left the award show’s reputation rattled and left audiences questioning the merits of the award show altogether.
This has been reflected in record-low Nielsen ratings over the last three years, although a slight uptick last year raises questions about the ratings trajectory for this year.
This year’s batch of nominations represents the struggle the Academy faces in addressing issues of inequity across lines of country, race and gender. A Korean film, Parasite, is up for three awards, while the Spanish film Pain and Glory is up for two.
But the nominations also ignored what many saw as some of the most powerful performances of the year—from women of color. Lulu Wang’s stirring and “incredibly charming” bilingual film The Farewell and Awkwafina’s performance in the leading role both failed to earn a single nomination, despite a win at the Golden Globes. Lupita Nyong’o’s performance as two dramatically different characters in Jordan Peeles’ blockbuster Us also went ignored at the Oscars, regardless of the nominations Nyong’o earned in the Critics’ Choice and Screen Actors Guild awards.
There was one acting nomination for a person of color, Cynthia Erivo, for her performance as Harriet Tubman, but it fell into the old trope of the Academy only recognizing Black Americans when they play slaves. Movies about Black people that don’t center slavery and oppression, such as Dolemite is My Name, fail to garner nominations.
“I think the real issue is the make-up of the membership of the Academy itself, which needs to be updated and diversified,” said Tim Williams, executive director at the Oregon Governor’s Office of Film and Television. “That process has been happening for a couple of years now but, like anything in this arena, it’s a frustratingly slow process.”
The Oscars will remain divisive, over-narrativized, and frankly white for some years to come. But as a tool for marketing the rare films that explore topics outside of white men, Williams argues that the Oscars still matter. “They do. Especially from a marketing point of view. Would films like Lady Bird or Parasite do as well as they did without this type of promotion at this level? I don’t know.”