The Oscar event has come a long way — from a show of glitzy Hollywood displaying high-class couture to a theatre of ‘woke’ fashionistas enacting their politics. But is it catching up? The annual Academy Awards event in Los Angeles is now a political theatre. Campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #TimesUp, #WhiteWashedOUT, and inclusion riders have all found a place at the Oscar gala. So, this time pop-culture enthusiasts in India woke up to scroll through Instagram and Twitter updates.
At Oscars 2020, it was Natalie Portman’s cheeky fashion choice – a custom embroidered cape by Dior featuring the names of female directors snubbed at the 92nd Academy Awards – that invoked the maximum number of smirks and reshares. After all, most that anyone really cares about present-day Oscars is whose political remark or jibe has set the social media on fire, or whose speech has become the talk of the town.
But more often than not, these political statements have only exposed Hollywood’s inability to catch up with hashtag activism of the new era.
A political stage
Director-producer-actress Issa Rae’s Oscar nomination video from last month, in which she announced this year’s Best Director nominees and curtly said “Congratulations to those men”, as well as the ceremony’s opening number that saw musician Janelle Monáe sing ‘It’s time to come alive because the Oscars is so white!’, were also noteworthy moments.
Given how the Oscars is considered the crème de la crème of film awards that monopolises the entire world’s attention, different political and social campaigns have utilised the platform and with good reason. But Hollywood’s embrace of what it believes is most relevant in the current socio-political scene – be it racial and cultural diversity, sexual harassment, gender equality – invariably ends up as merely paying lip service. And that’s because the White, male-dominated Academy doesn’t seem to get the memo and continues to award… well, White men.
Despite #MeToo and #TimesUP leading the debate on sexual harassment and allowing many women to speak up, accused men like Gary Oldman and Casey Affleck have not only been nominated but also awarded with the Oscar trophy in the past. Despite the stir caused by the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, which was started by April Reign five years ago in reaction to the Academy nominating only White people in 2015, major nominations and awards have not gone to Black people since.
Even when there have been inclusive nominations or wins, the instances have felt tokenistic and didn’t seem to indicate any real shift in the Academy’s perspective.
Although Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age drama about an African-American boy, Moonlight, was awarded the Best Picture in 2017, the awkward episode involving the other nominee La La Land left an acerbic aftertaste, made many feel that the Black community had been robbed of their moment of glory. Predictably, the Oscars went back to being as White as it was before they very next year.
Greta Gerwig’s 2018 Best Director nomination for Lady Bird was remarkable but also depressing. Headlines focussed on how she had “made history” by becoming the first female director in eight years to be nominated, the reality was that only five women had been nominated in the Awards’ 91-year history – with only one win, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010. Clearly, Gerwig was expected to feel grateful for the nomination.
Bong Joon-ho’s Korean mystery-drama Parasite picking up awards in four categories in Oscars 2020 will be hailed as a huge win for diversity. But lost in the outpour of applause and excitement would be the fact that it’s merely an anomaly, and that is the sobering part.
Will the Academy manage to eventually catch up with the socio-political pulse of the moment, something that some in Hollywood seem to have aligned themselves with? Until it does, we will have to watch out for hidden messages in red carpet gowns, jibes in opening monologues, and mic-drop moments in acceptance speeches to feel like the Oscars are actually still relevant.