The Oscars haven’t done well in recent years. The Oscars’ waning reputation has been noted by many in light of its many fiascos and canceled televised ceremonies, exacerbated by the pandemic. As a validator and esteemed spokesperson for Hollywood, the Academy has become accountable to an entertainment industry tainted with misogyny and racism (#Oscarssowhite).
With their lowest ever ratings in 2021, the Oscars are visibly losing credibility and prestige on the world stage – the two elements so essential to their enduring power. It’s really a flashing warning sign on his dashboard.
This could perhaps explain a certain evolution of the films nominated for the awards this year. There’s a surge in international film nominations, along with other firsts – including the first female nominee for Best Cinematographer (Ari Wegner, The Power of the Dog).
What’s been remarkable this year by Oscar standards is the number of non-US films nominated in categories other than the default “Best International Feature” – which was, until 2020, labeled “Best foreign movie”. Parasite was the film that drew attention to the redundancy of this category when, in 2020, it became the first “foreign language” film to win Best Picture – as well as, of course, Best International Film.
Read more: Fleeing: Animation is a powerful medium for documentaries about conflict and refugees
The problematic nature of “best international/foreign film” has been highlighted by many, observing the arbitrary way these awards have been defined through simplistic binaries.
For example, in 2020, the Nigerian movie, Lionheart, was kicked out of the Oscars because it was mostly in English. English is the national language of Nigeria following its history of colonization by the former British Empire.
By far the most problematic area of the international film category is how it reinforces old ideas that “world cinema” exists outside of the elite range of Euro-American cinema. It perpetuates a colonial legacy that continues to underpin film criticism, theory, production, and distribution.
The International Film category is an Oscar that for 60 years (and counting) has served to underscore the norm: that non-English speaking, non-white films made by non-men have no place in a dominant circle esteemed by critics.
This year, however, the continued separation of “international” films from Euro-American films has been undermined by the fact that “international” (non-English language) films have appeared in other film categories, such as: Parallel Mothers (Spain), Flee (Denmark), The Worst Person in the World (Norway) and Drive My Car (Japan), all demonstrating a shift in voter tastes.
Drive My Car, in particular, shines a light on those blurry lines of nationality. In the film, there is a theatrical production in which each actor speaks a different language, including Japanese and Mandarin, and one of them uses Korean Sign Language. There are rolling supertitles for the Japanese audience watching and under the movie frame, subtitles for the movie audience.
While it’s true that Drive My Car wins the Best Picture category, one might note the legacy of Bong Joon-Ho, in his winning speech for Parasite:
Once you overcome the one inch subtitle barrier, you will discover many more amazing movies.
The future of the Oscars
Have the tastes of voters changed then? The demographics of Oscar voters have changed. Once a privileged majority, the Academy now proudly claims that from 2020 it has upped its diversity game. It now has 45% women and 36% “under-represented minorities”, including 2,107 members out of 6,000 “internationals”. This potentially explains the stark shift in nominations that challenge the legitimacy of Euro-American films as an enduring norm. Women, minorities and non-Americans gradually gain the right to vote. Thus, the effects of their votes are also gradually being felt.
The platform is forced to change in order to accommodate perspectives that weren’t even considered before. After nearly a century, the Academy might finally get the idea that representation matters. And so, the democracy of the Internet shapes the “democracy” of the Oscars.
The extent of this potential shift, however, remains to be seen as the Oscars are still rooted in practices of ego and vanity, as they always have been.
For so long, the cracks are beginning to appear from which a diverse global future could emerge. A future that recognizes and fosters the complex and tangled collaborations so necessary to the art of cinema. A future that values evolution and change, rather than seeking to preserve the boundaries of difference and the Euro-American “norm”.