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Oscars: Despite Historic Wins, Advances in Diversity Remain Slow and Inconsistent

"Parasite's" huge night blanketed what was one of the least diverse years in recent Academy Award history.

THE OSCARS® - The 92nd Oscars® broadcasts live on Sunday, Feb. 9,2020 at the Dolby Theatre® at Hollywood & Highland Center® in Hollywood and will be televised live on The ABC Television Network at 8:00 p.m. EST/5:00 p.m. PST. (ABC/CRAIG SJODIN)BONG JOON HO, KWAK SIN AE, CAST AND CREW OF PARASITE

The cast and crew of “Parasite” winning Best Picture

ABC / Craig SJODIN

After a mostly predictable awards season, the Academy Awards surprised with a final twist on Sunday evening, giving “Parasite” the Best Picture trophy, earning South Korean Bong Joon Ho’s dramedy a spot in film history: It is the first non-English film to take home the top Oscar.

And somewhere in Hollywood, the filmmaker is still drinking.

It’s noteworthy that this happened a year after the Academy gave the contentious “Green Book” the Best Picture Oscar, in a much maligned decision that many felt undermined any attempts by the institution to diversify.

“Parasite” also won the Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Film awards. It’s the first film to win both the Best Picture and Best International Film Oscars.

Additionally, Taika Waititi took home the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for “Jojo Rabbit,” his adaption of Christine Leunens’ book “Caging Skies.”

But undoubtedly, on the issue of diversity at the 2020 Oscars, “Parasite” was the big winner, and deservedly so. Arguably, voters might have been keen to show how inclusive the Academy is, and that they aren’t repelled by “the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” as Bong put it during his Golden Globes acceptance speech.

It would also seem that there was a mandate of some kind that required every presenter or performer to allude to issues of diversity and inclusion, given that many who took to the stage during the Oscar ceremony did just that: from Janelle Monáe’s opening musical performance highlighting diverse films, to opening presenters Steve Martin and Chris Rock noting the absence of “vaginas” from the year’s director nominees, to rapper Utkarsh Ambudkar’s halftime melodious recap of the night’s diversity bona fides, and of course to Joaquin Phoenix’s politically charged acceptance speech.

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First time producers Lynette Howell Taylor and Stephanie Allain likely had a plan to address the Academy’s most dominant controversy.

However, all of the pomp and circumstance, along with “Parasite’s” huge night, blanketed what was easily one of the least diverse years in recent Academy Award history.

THE OSCARS® - The 92nd Oscars® broadcasts live on Sunday, Feb. 9,2020 at the Dolby Theatre® at Hollywood & Highland Center® in Hollywood and will be televised live on The ABC Television Network at 8:00 p.m. EST/5:00 p.m. PST. (ABC/CRAIG SJODIN)JANELLE MONAE

Janelle Monáe performs at the 2020 Oscars

ABC

A year after a list of Oscar nominees that represented one of the most diverse in Academy history, with people of color winning in at least 10 categories, sending the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag on a well-deserved vacation, the Academy took a significant step backwards in 2020.

A 2019 diversity highlight saw three of the four acting categories go to actors of color, in a very rare occurrence: Rami Malek (Best Actor, “Bohemian Rhapsody”), Regina King (Best Supporting Actress, “If Beale Street Could Talk”), and Mahershala Ali (Best Supporting Actor, “Green Book”).

This year, only one actor of color was nominated across all acting categories: Cynthia Erivo for Best Actress. Erivo lost to Renée Zellweger in the Best Actress category.

Also noteworthy in 2019 was the record number of black winners. King and Ali, as well as Ruth Carter (Costume Design), Hannah Beachler (Production Design), Peter Ramsey (Animated Feature), Spike Lee (Adapted Screenplay), and Kevin Willmott (Adapted Screenplay), made last year’s Academy Awards a historic one for black talent.

Additionally, history was made by Carter (first black person to win the Oscar for Costume Design for “Black Panther”); Beachler (first black designer to receive not only a Best Production Design nomination but also a win, for “Black Panther”); and Ramsey (first black director to be nominated in, and win the Animated Feature category for “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” which he co-directed with Bob Persichetti and Rodney Rothman).

“Parasite’s” wins aside, this year would see nothing of the kind for nominees of color, of which there were very few.

With Oscar viewership still hovering at record lows, diversity among its 2020 nominees might have provided the Academy Awards celebration with a much-needed ratings jolt. But there isn’t much the Academy can do to influence that outcome; no matter how much it diversifies its membership, which it continues to do aggressively, they can’t vote on movies or performances that don’t exist.

And despite all the chatter on the need to be more diverse and inclusive, after a banner 2019 that seemed to signal a much-needed shift, this year’s nominees indicated that change remains inconsistent and slow to arrive.

It demonstrates that, to a certain degree, the industry continues to undervalue stories that aren’t about and by white men, especially when it comes to awards-caliber material. From the decisions on which projects are greenlit, to who and what gets nominated, a discriminatory system continues to shut out many groups.

It’s therefore imperative that executives with decision making power work to ensure a more diverse movie pipeline. That might be the only way that the Oscars will remain relevant in the future.

This means that studio output especially, over the next several years, will continue to face close scrutiny. And looking ahead at racial and ethnic diversity “in the director’s chair” at the studio level, as of this writing, the 2020 picture doesn’t suggest a marked improvement over 2019.

Of course, that could change as new projects are announced and fast-tracked, films are acquired at film festivals, directors are replaced, and so on. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely that any changes will have a drastic effect on the current outlook.

It is also worth mentioning that there are several “Untitled” projects that have been dated, but remain mysteries, because the studios behind them have kept specifics about each (notably crew and cast) under wraps. So it’s possible that a number of the “Untitled” projects will have diverse casts and/or be assigned to directors of color. However, given the lack of information at this time, those projects were not considered.

THE OSCARS® - The 92nd Oscars® broadcasts live on Sunday, Feb. 9,2020 at the Dolby Theatre® at Hollywood & Highland Center® in Hollywood and will be televised live on The ABC Television Network at 8:00 p.m. EST/5:00 p.m. PST. (ABC/CRAIG SJODIN)STEVE MARTIN, CHRIS ROCK

Steve Martin and Chris Rock at the 2020 Oscars

ABC / CRAIG SJODIN

Here’s a snapshot of 2020 studio films that check the diversity box, that might be in the Oscar conversation in various categories, for 2021.

Disney

“Soul,” co-directed by Kemp Powers, June 19, 2020
“Eternals,” directed by Chloé Zhao, November 6, 2020

20th Century

“West Side Story,” directed by Steven Spielberg, December 18, 2020

Searchlight

“Nomadland,” directed by Chloé Zhao, no release date yet

Lionsgate

“Run,” directed by Aneesh Chaganty, January 24, 2020

MGM

“No Time to Die,” directed by Cary Fukunaga, April 8, 2020
“Respect,” directed by Liesl Tommy, October 9, 2020

Netflix

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” directed by George C. Wolfe, no release date yet
“Da 5 Bloods,” directed by Spike Lee, no release date yet

Universal

“Covers,” directed by Nisha Ganatra, May 8, 2020
“BIOS,” directed by Miguel Sapochnik, October 2, 2020

Warner Bros.

“In the Heights,” directed by Jon M. Chu, June 26, 2020
“King Richard,” directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, November 25, 2020
“Untitled Fred Hampton project,” directed by Shaka King, August 21, 2020
“Tenet,” directed by Christopher Nolan, July 17, 2020

Of course, it’s still very early in the year. So the picture could certainly change before next awards season begins, with major festivals like Cannes and Toronto, known for premiering Oscar contenders, still many months away.

Until then, Bong Joon Ho is king of the world, and “Parasite” is his sceptre.

The 92nd annual Academy Awards took place on Sunday, February 9, 2020. It was broadcast live on ABC, and in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

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