Another year, another chance for the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag to be resurrected from its shallow grave. If you’ve forgotten its origins, think back to both the 2015 and 2016 Awards, where all 20 actors — yes, all — in both best lead and supporting acting categories were all white.
It’s not for nothing. If you’ve been keeping up with this year’s award season fervour, then you might have seen the recent Oscar nominations — and you might have noticed how incredibly white, and male, that list is.
This year’s crop of nominees for Best Picture aren’t just dominated by white men, they also focus on distinctly male issues and stories: The egotistical fear of fading into obscurity (Once Upon A Time…), friendships that can only be wrought in a foxhole, stuck there as they are by the machinations of more powerful men (1917), bonding that occurs through an almost phallic one-upmanship (Ford v Ferrari), of a disenfranchised man failed by the system, society, and in a rather Freudian twist, his own co-dependent mother (Joker).
Does it also say something that most of these films were all set in the recent past? Think of the Stepford wives that preen through the sepia-hued Ford v Ferrari, a faceless ensemble of doting and demurring women whose sole motivation in life seems to be to serve the earth that their husbands walk upon. Or the laughably misogynistic portrayal of Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate in Once Upon A Time, who, true to director Tarantino’s own misogynistic tendencies, is a sexualised plot cipher whose only discernible purpose is to dance at Playboy mansion parties.
There might be something to be said about the quiet fury of Anna Paquin’s Peggy in The Irishman, who silently judges her father’s thuggish ways from her adolescence into womanhood, but even so, she’s little more than a mute bit-player in the world of men, a moral beacon for Robert De Niro’s tortured gangster. Peggy has just about as much motivation and character development as a slab of meat — which seems to be the general consensus of most male directors towards actresses, anyway.
What does it say, then, that most of the films nominated for best film were set in the good old days when white men ruled?
There is certainly value in exploring stories about men, especially when they pertain to oft-neglected themes like ego and fallibility (re: films like The Irishman, where male violence is presented not as a solution, but as the problem), but the world doesn’t just consist of white men — even if Hollywood acts like it does. That is to say, what about stories that focus on, you know, everyone else?
It’s not like the panel didn’t have a lot of choices: 2019 had a cachet of critically acclaimed films by female directors. Captain Marvel, Frozen II, Hustlers, The Farewell, Little Women — 10% of the 100 highest-grossing films of 2019 were from female directors.
Hollywood’s failure to acknowledge female directors and persons of colour isn’t anything new. Whether the bias is borne of pure discrimination or ignorance, the facts don’t lie: Year on year, we see the same tired nihilism roll in around Awards season.
This year, it was best encapsulated by Issa Rae while she was announcing the (all male) roster for Best Director: “Congratulations to these men,” she deadpanned.
Even this year’s Best Actress and Supporting Actress categories — that men are ostensibly excluded from — were exceedingly white. Eight out of ten of the nominees were blonde-haired-blue-eyed white women, save the 71-year-old thespian Kathy Bathes, and Cynthia Erivo, the sole black person to be nominated for an acting award. (Ironically, she played American abolitionist and former slave Harriet Tubman.)
But diversity for the sake of it is just as toxic. Nobody’s suggesting that The Irishman be thrown out and replaced with Little Women just because it has too many white men in it. And neither should directors sprinkle in some female soldiers into the trenches of a WWI movie for tokenism’s sake.
Instead, what’s needed are simply more women and other races in the industry. If movies had more directors, actors, actresses, scriptwriters that weren’t straight white men, naturally, more diverse stories would be told: at which point, they should be impossible to ignore.
Right now, awards won by films and directors that feature women or minority races are treated as the exception rather than the norm. Perhaps the day will come when it becomes so — but in any case, if the yearly malaise surrounding white-and-male award rosters continues, such awards might not be too long for the modern world.