With award buzz infiltrating almost every form of media in the past weeks, a pattern that’s existed for years seems to be repeating itself yet again: people of color have been largely left out of the nominations. The Academy Awards specifically are being criticized for their homogenous nature of award nominations, most of which have gone to white actors and actresses. The saturation of white professionals is so prominent this award season that the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite has risen in popularity again, a tagline that previously gained prominence in 2015. The Golden Globe winners were also totally white, with Parasite winning only the Foreign Language Film category.
Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-Ho, has been nominated in various categories and is by far the most recognized film with a non-white cast and non-white leads. However, none of the film’s individual actors were nominated for Lead or Supporting Actor/Actress categories. The only person of color to be nominated for an individual acting award is Cynthia Erivo for her role in Harriet. According to Deadline, this years nominations are a large step backward in inclusivity compared to the 2019 awards ceremony, yet even last year’s Oscars saw its own controversy with Green Book winning Best Picture, despite criticism of it being another white savior story.
While Erivo’s nomination somewhat functions as an acknowledgement of black talent within the Hollywood industry, the fact that her nomination is for a film based upon a slave narrative is telling. A plethora of films with predominately black casts came out this year, including Us, Dolemite Is My Name, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Queen and Slim, all of which worked as inclusive representational projects without hyper-focusing on historical black trauma. And, while acknowledging the cruel treatment of African Americans is important to understanding history and modern social structures, it becomes problematic when black trauma narratives saturate the market to such an extent that they’re viewed as the only “prestige” type of black storytelling by Hollywood. The Academy’s decision to only recognize a Black actress in the context of one such film perpetuates a one-dimensional representation of African American identity within the visual arts.
In light of this exclusionary nomination pattern, the nominated films further highlight a problematic racial dynamic that continues to plague the Oscars. Joker, a narrative that essentially glorifies the violent journey of a social outcast, has been nominated for eleven Oscar categories. Quality of production aside, the film’s focus on creating a deafening sense of empathy for a white male character who, regardless of director Todd Phillip’s intentions, alarmingly represents the characteristics of modern domestic terrorists comes across as problematic. The fact is Joker humanizes this character and, in turn, is celebrated by the Academy to such a disproportionate degree at the expense of films about people of color. A character based upon the archetypes of white supremacists and “incel” culture has been given the spotlight, while film with ethnically-inclusive casts have gone barely recognized for their quality and execution.
The white narratives typically celebrated by film award ceremonies often repeat and perpetuate “white savior” stereotypes, which situate white protagonists and the white actors playing them as champions for their non-white cast mates. Pre-Green Book, this was best exemplified by Sandra Bullock’s 2010 Oscar win for The Blind Side, which focused explicitly on the white family that adopts future Baltimore Ravens linesman Michael Oher as a teenager and guides him to both academic success and an athletic career. Films like this portray African American characters as both inept when it comes to navigating the world and in need of a white presence to achieve success. There is a complete disregard for black autonomy in films that follow this narrative format. Projects such as Us and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, by contrast, establish African American characters as the leaders of their own narratives and not dependent on the presence of white characters to develop the plot. In order to establish a more equitable award system, the acknowledgement of films with autonomous POC main characters is absolutely necessary.
If the Academy wanted to actually make an effort to recognize diverse projects, they would nominate films that define black characters as multi-dimensional, rather than capitalize on stories of structural violence and reduce African Americans to the pain they historically endured. Just as the nominated white narratives are diverse in their scope, subject matter, contexts while constantly being commended for production quality, the diversity of various films with non-white casts deserve equal acclaim.