the gold rush

The Oscars? Still So White.

Where the hell is Jennifer Lopez? Photo: Barbara Nitke/STXfilms

The 2020 Oscar nominations were announced today, revealing an overwhelmingly white and male field of contenders. We gathered a group of writers — Alison Willmore, Angelica Jade Bastién, and E. Alex Jung — to discuss the Academy’s continuing and glaring shortcomings.

Alison Willmore: There’s something that feels apocalyptically appropriate — incredibly “lol nothing matters” — about Joker leading the Oscars with 11 nominations. I had a feeling something like that was coming, knew that Todd Phillips’s film was going to at least walk away with Best Actor and Best Picture nods, but hadn’t really been braced for it to be the overall leader of a field that notably doesn’t include personal faves like The Farewell, Atlantics, and Uncut Gems. It’s a year in which women have once again been shut out of the director race, and where only one performer of color has been nominated in the acting field. What else is there to say about the triumph of this hollow but massively lucrative enterprise in supervillain origin stories by way of white male rage but: we live in a society. Is Joker’s success at all surprising to you both?

Angelica Jade Bastién: Joker’s success didn’t feel surprising so much as inevitable. It has dominated the awards conversation in ways that are very dispiriting, especially because I don’t think Joaquin Phoenix’s performance has that much complication or depth to it. But that’s another story. I’m honestly more angry about who got shut out and what that says about how the Academy imagines greatness when it comes to performers of color. Where the hell is Jennifer Lopez, Awkwafina, Alfre Woodard, or Park So-dam? That Cynthia Erivo is the only actor of color nominated at all is a travesty. Partially because her performance is stunningly forgettable, partially because nominating only a performance from a slavery film leaves a sour taste in my mouth. It legitimizes this idea that black stories must revolve around sorrow and loss in order to be seen as important. Mostly, this shows a failure of imagination in a year in which the most moving, technically marvelous, emotionally fascinating acting performances were by people of color in a variety of storytelling formats.

E. Alex Jung: Yes, the fact Cynthia Erivo was the only nonwhite acting nominee in a year full of fantastic performances by people of color is incredibly insulting, and says a lot about what the Academy deems as worthy of recognition. Erivo is perfectly serviceable in a just-fine movie, which raises that more persistent question: Why is a slavery narrative always the surefire path for Oscar recognition? It speaks to the general quality blindness industry people have around race and their ideas of what has emotional heft. Lupita Nyong’o created two fully realized performances in Jordan Peele’s horror film Us, as women locked in a merciless power struggle, and yet she gets snubbed in an overall “weak” field. (It should go without saying that Lupita’s breakthrough role was, ahem, 12 Years a Slave.) Counterpose this with Joaquin Phoenix, who is also playing in a genre film, and who has been the front-runner for the win in a crowded category for months.

And then there’s J.Lo, who is magnetically good in Hustlers, and again, I think failed to get a nomination because of a bias around “seriousness” and “the work,” which has everything to do with perceptions around race and gender and what sort of accomplishments we perceive as important. She isn’t a sad stripper in the vein of Natalie Portman, but one who determines the worldview of the film: that her hustle is an act of empowerment, no less than what the Wall Street executives do on the daily. There is no apology; she’s not reduced by the male gaze.

I also have a sneaking suspicion that voters didn’t consider Lopez’s performance “acting” but “just being” — that her career as a dancer and performer somehow diminishes her accomplishment in the film.

Willmore: Yeah, it’s really difficult to see this year’s nominees as a result of anything other than the Academy’s continuing and glaring shortcomings in this regard. As you pointed out, Alex, if Us was dinged for being a genre film, well, being a genre film sure didn’t seem to hurt Joker any. Joker, for that matter, is a movie that openly riffs on King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, two movies from fellow nominee Martin Scorsese, but when the considerably defter Hustlers came out, I saw whatever commonalities it had to Goodfellas being used against it. I have no idea why one of these movies is seen as an homage and the other is interpreted as mimicry — well, I have some idea, given the ways in which women’s authorship is perceived as less intentional. And that goes for the acting awards as well. If you want to chalk up the nominations for Cynthia Erivo, Charlize Theron, Renée Zellweger (all for work in fine-to-bad movies) to the Academy’s fondness for impersonations of real people, then how to explain the snub for Lopez? By God, Jennifer Lopez did not learn to do that incredible pole dance for nothing, and as technical achievements go, it’s way more impressive to me than Theron’s recreation of Megyn Kelly’s tenor.

Bastién: Alison, you bring up a great point about the narratives that surround and sometimes work against these films. That is ultimately how awards are won. By playing the game, and cultivating a strong story around your nomination come campaigning time. Have there been any awards-season narratives that either of you have found particularly revealing this year? I think, for one, the conversation around Greta Gerwig and Little Women has felt quite limited. So little critical discourse has attempted to challenge how whiteness operates in this film, which takes place in the same Civil War–era America as Harriet. It’s almost as if there wasn’t room for criticism of the movie’s approach to race, for fear it would hamper the one chance we had of nominating a non-male director.

Jung: It definitely started to feel like the groundswell of “we need a female director to get nominated” coalesced around Gerwig in a way that was a disservice to both her and other female filmmakers who were allegedly vying for “the slot,” like Lulu Wang, Lorene Scafaria, and Mati Diop, to name a few. Furthermore, there becomes a reluctance to air any criticism around this lest we loosen the precious foothold that we supposedly had. But the framework was bunk to begin with, because it presumed only one spot, and furthermore presumed Gerwig would be the representative “female director.” Everyone is just operating off a scarcity mentality.

Willmore: I think a lot of that conversation ended up focused on Gerwig because she made the most “Oscar movie” of the bunch, with all of the vague associations that come with that. I think Little Women is actually a stealthily ambitious movie that uses its structure to interrogate its source material. But it’s been funny and sad to watch even the things that seem like they should have helped it along, awards narrative-wise — it’s a period piece, and an adaptation of a familiar classic — apparently hurting it, courtesy of those maybe apocryphal Academy voters rebelling against the idea of another Louisa May Alcott adaptation. And I think to your point, Angelica, it’s absolutely a movie whose feminism is viewed through a white lens, and one that offers up a largely unquestioningly cozy vision of its historical era. It’s also a movie I like a lot! And I wish the conversation hadn’t started making it The Only One.

Bastién: Yes, I will say that Greta Gerwig and the film are put in the impossible position of having to represent all things to all women when she became the “presumptive representation of all female directors,” to quote Alex. No film can shoulder such a burden.

Jung: I also want to add a word about Parasite, which got six nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. Historic! A first for a Korean film! Still, it doesn’t feel like it quite matches the scope of the achievement. No nomination for score. Nothing for cinematography, despite this being quite possibly the most cinematique film of the year. And very pointedly, there were no nominations for any of the actors in the movie — not Song Kang Ho as the tortured father or the dry comedy of Park So-dam or Lee Jeong-eun as the housekeeper who’s really the hinge for the crucial turn midway through the film. It’s boring to talk about, but it must be said that there’s a persistent prejudice against Asian actors within Hollywood: It’s why studio executives say they can’t green-light a film with an Asian lead, and why an Asian actor has never been nominated in Best Actor or Best Actress. (See: Awkwafina, 2020.) Even Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which earned a raft of nominations in 2001, didn’t garner any for the incredible performances by Zhang Ziyi or Michelle Yeoh. There’s an old prejudice at work here that sees Asian people as technical workers — hence the praise for Bong Joon Ho — and refuses to see us as fully human.

Willmore: Parasite also suffered from being a true ensemble movie, something that baffles awards — I sat in various rooms in which people fought over whether Song Kang Ho was a lead or a supporting actor in that movie. That said, that same category confusion didn’t hurt Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I was particularly crushed by the way that The Farewell was shut out — of screenplay, directing, and picture, but also acting. I hadn’t expected Awkwafina to get in, given the frankly gross way that category had also firmed up into one in which all the actresses of color were presumed to be battling for one spot. But I really thought it could happen for Zhao Shuzhen, who’s so wonderful as Nai Nai — even if, as you said, Alex, the Oscars have been far more likely to give our nominations to Asian actors for supporting roles than leading one. That said, I can see a universe where Parasite wins Best Picture. The downside of that is that I don’t necessarily see a win like that leading to significant change.

Bastién: Alison, that’s heartbreaking to think about, but unfortunately, I think you’re right. With this year’s Oscar nominations feeling so out of touch, particularly when it comes to the acting nods, and the ever-dwindling ratings, do y’all think we will come to a point in the near future where, culturally, the awards don’t matter at all? I guess this question popped into my head because how can the Oscars stay relevant if they’re not reflecting the culture these movies are born from? Why should we give the awards heat if people of color are still fighting over a single nomination spot? I see the importance of recognition within the industry. But I’m just angry y’all, and trying to figure out a different way to view film greatness beyond bodies like this, that seem hopelessly retrograde in the narratives they uphold and the artists they admire.

Jung: Right, I mean why are we even waking up and getting mad like we expect the Oscars to act differently from how they’ve acted every year before? (Madness.) And I think that ultimately speaks to an existential desire for institutional recognition. What does it matter what the Oscars think? Can we just ignore them? I tend to be more of a cynic, because the demographic makeup of the Academy makes it systematically resistant to radical change. But there is very real, material significance to these awards, and I’ve been seeing people make insidious arguments that “merit” is what has won out. I think the conversation is around shifting how we are seen — a slow, possibly impossible task — and expanding the scope of what is considered good, prestigious, or human. This includes the Oscars, but is also much bigger than that.

Wilmore: I think, also, the Oscars are still clearly valuable from a business sense — that’s why studios spend enormous amounts of money on awards campaigns. They may feel increasingly irrelevant, but they remain an enormous platform. And, obviously, an incredibly frustrating one. I don’t know — for me, the way to look at the Academy Awards is as a warped, imperfect reflection of how the movie industry sees itself, and what it considers important. I don’t expect much from it, and maybe I expect too little, but it is, to me, an event that’s always best looked at as a measure of how Hollywood really feels. And this year, it feels disappointingly retrograde. Which is all the more reason for us to write about the work that it’s failed to recognize.

More From This Series

See All
The Oscars? Still So White.