It’s time again for our semi-annual awards tradition: arguing about where the Golden Globes have placed our favorite movies. See, the Oscars usually let you compete wherever you want. Rooney Mara is a supporting actress in Carol? Sure, go for it. The Globes, by contrast, love to sort and categorize. Does this performance belong in Lead or Supporting? Is this movie a drama or a comedy? You can suggest the answer, but in the end, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association will tell you.
Compounding this is the Globes’ determination that every film must compete in only one of the Best Feature categories. Just as there are three types of Terminator — good, bad, and neutral — the HFPA has determined there are three types of movies: dramas, musicals/comedies, and foreign language. Everyone competes against everyone else in Director and Screenplay, but for the big prizes, you’ve got your assigned category and that’s it.
Which brings us to this week’s awards controversy: The Globes have determined that Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film about a Korean American family in 1980s Arkansas, features too much Korean dialogue to compete in Best Drama and therefore slotted it in Best Foreign Language Film. The same thing happened with The Farewell last year, to similar uproar, but at least there the HFPA could argue that, while it is an American film, much of it takes place in China. Minari, by contrast, takes place entirely in Middle America and is telling the most American of stories — the struggle of immigrants to achieve their dreams without losing touch with the culture of the Old Country.
The response to the decision has been almost uniformly negative. Actor Daniel Dae Kim tweeted that it is the “film equivalent of being told to go back to your country when that country is actually America.” The Farewell director Lulu Wang tweeted, “I have not seen a more American film than #Minari this year. It’s a story about an immigrant family, IN America, pursuing the American dream. We really need to change these antiquated rules that characterize American as only English-speaking.”
And while I haven’t don’t the math — the HFPA says the dividing line is at 70 percent non-English dialogue — the fact that Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds wasn’t slotted into Foreign Language, despite its plethora of scenes in German and French, is sticking in some craws as well.
The HFPA’s argument is that the Foreign Language category is as prestigious as any other, and films are in no way diminished by competing there. But this doesn’t quite ring true. For instance, while Drama and Musical/Comedy both get their own Best Actor and Best Actress categories at the Globes, Foreign Language entries don’t. And while Best Drama and Best Musical/Comedy are awarded at or near the end of the ceremony, Best Foreign Language Film happens earlier in the night. The Globes themselves create the sense that Foreign Language is a “lesser” category than the big two of Drama and Musical/Comedy, which is how you got a lot of people last year saying the Globes didn’t nominate any films by female directors, when The Farewell and Portrait of a Lady on Fire were sitting right there.
You may recall that the Oscars got into a similar controversy during the year of Roma, when observers noted that Spanish was not really a “foreign language” to the millions of Americans who speak it regularly. The Academy course-corrected by changing the name of the category to Best International Film — though, in classic Academy fashion, that resulted only in people getting mad at the organization for something else, as rules meant to ensure the field wasn’t dominated by English-language films from the U.K., Ireland, and Canada meant Nigeria’s entry was disqualified too. But the Globes’ latest misstep feels more correctable. Is there any reason not to scrap the rule that films in the big-two categories have to be in English and reserve the
Foreign Language category for films that originated outside the United States? Who better than the HFPA, a collection of international journalists living in America, to acknowledge that English and American aren’t synonyms?