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The Current Debate: Oscars 2021, the Most Diverse Ever?

After “Parasite” and “Nomadland,” are we witnessing a cultural shift in the films taken seriously by the Academy?
Leonardo Goi
“In many ways,” Brooks Barnes and Nicole Sperling write at The New York Times, “the 93rd Oscars amounted to a celebration of diversity.” Postponed from the usual February slot to Sunday, April 25, no longer held in the iconic Dolby Theatre but in Los Angeles’s Union Station, and helmed by director Steven Soderbergh (who co-produced the event with Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher), the 2021 Academy Awards was an edition of historic firsts. Judging by the nominations alone, Shirley Li argues at The Atlantic, “the Oscars already had enough newness this year to prove its thesis that it deserves a future.”
Nine of the twenty acting noms went to people of color, who nabbed two of the four awards (Minari’s Youn Yuh-jung and Judas and the Black Messiah’s Daniel Kaluuya, both in the supporting actor categories). Riz Ahmed was the first Muslim nominee for Best Actor; Youn the first Korean actress to get an acting nod (and the first to win). Seventy women were nominated across all categories—the largest number ever. Most notably, two were nominated for directing, and the winner, Chloé Zhao, was the first woman of color—and the first of Asian descent—to receive the statuette.
A year after Bong Joon-ho’s seismic best picture win for Parasite, Zhao’s Nomadland also took home the night’s top award. What does the triumph say about the “new” road Hollywood seems to have embarked on? Are we to read it as a kind of cultural shift in the type of films that are taken seriously by the Academy?
Things have certainly shifted since the #OscarsSoWhite protests of 2015 and 2016, thanks to the Black artists and artists of color who, Richard Brody stresses at The New Yorker, have helped “to make the awards, and the American cinema, begin to resemble the country over all rather than an oppressive, dominant segment of it.” But for all the new milestones, a few accolades were still flagged as evidence of the Academy’s reticence to truly move forward. As A.O. Scott observes at The New York Times, the Oscars handed to Frances McDormand (Best Actress for Nomadland) and Anthony Hopkins (Best Actor for The Father) still “sent a message,” namely that “the academy is only willing to go so far in the direction of the new.” In a race many had thought would be won by the late Chadwick Boseman for his turn in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Hopkins’s recognition proved especially controversial—not least because it was the last award of the night, and the Welsh actor was not in town (or in front of a laptop) to receive it (though the producers apparently turned down Hopkins' offer of a Zoom acceptance speech). “What’s upsetting,” Ben Travers contends at IndieWire,
...is that the Film Academy continues to overlook Black creatives, and at the tail end of a ceremony that saw Regina King kick things off like only Regina King can, everyone was reminded that a Black man rarely wins Best Actor, a Black woman rarely wins Best Actress, and Black directors rarely win, either — or in King’s case, they’re not even nominated.
There’s no denying that much remains to be fixed. But to read the award for Hopkins’s titanic performance as an outright rebuttal of the ceremony’s landmarks—or to criticize, as Jen Chaney does at Vulture, the decision “to conclude the night by not giving an Academy Award to the late King of Wakanda” and handing it “to a white man who is still alive and already has an Oscar to his credit” after “so many speeches throughout the evening that addressed racial injustice”—feels like a simplification (Hopkins himself put out a morning-after speech and paid a tribute to Boseman). If anything, the demotion of Best Picture to the third-to-last category speaks of a failed gamble by Soderbergh’s team. Or, to borrow again from A.O. Scott and his chat with Wesley Morris at The New York Times
That decision underlined what has been evident over the past few years, which is that there is no coherent narrative about what movies are and why we should care about them—no enabling myth or ideology—that the broadcast could invoke.
Rather than a chink in the inclusivity credentials of the edition, Catherine Shoard intelligently remarks at The Guardian, Hopkins’s and McDormand’s wins “do also tell their own encouraging story.” It’s very rare any acting winner is over 60; this year, three of four were: 83-year-old Hopkins (now the oldest ever acting winner) 63-year-old McDormand (the oldest Best Actress winner since Jessica Tandy in 1990) and 73-year-old Youn.
Such stats can seem surprising until you process just how eager Hollywood is to swaddle middle-aged actors in latex, rather than risk someone genuinely elderly. Helen Mirren was only 60 when she played the 71-year-old Queen; Meryl Streep was 61 when she played a very decrepit Margaret Thatcher. Pre-Hopkins, the last leading actor Oscar winner over 60 was Henry Fonda for On Golden Pond, 40 years ago.
Which leads us to Nomadland, and Chloé Zhao’s historic victory. Widely anticipated as it may have been, the film’s coronation is nothing short of thrilling. Its steady spot at the top of the prediction charts, Alison Willmore tells Bilge Ebiri at Vulture, “has been a testament to how unusual the films that ended up in the conversation really were.” That the film triumphed owed in part to the way “it elegantly captures the contradictions of contemporary American life,” Robyn Bahr argues at The Hollywood Reporter. As per The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, it ran “both with and against the spirit of the times,” teasing a locked-down audience with nomads ranging freely around, while also tapping into a new reality of financial woe: a pandemic-fueled economic crisis as lacerating as the 2008 crash Nomadland springs out of. 
Zhao’s achievement, Justin Chang reminds us at The L.A. Times, “is historic many times over.” Not only is the she first woman of color to win the directing Oscar, she’s also only the second woman since Kathryn Bigelow’s groundbreaking win for The Hurt Locker over a decade ago.
That’s a ridiculously long wait, and while it’s better late than never, one hesitates to give the academy too much credit: Even with a steadily diversifying membership that’s far more attentive to non-white-male filmmakers now than it was 20 years ago (witness the glorious sight of Zhao accepting her directing statue from last year’s winner, Bong Joon Ho), progress remains a frustratingly slow, uphill journey.
And the film’s focus is no less revolutionary. Over at The Hollywood Reporter, Scott Feinberg sees Nomadland as “the first truly female-centric best picture winner since Terms of Endearment 37 years ago.” Sure, as Dan Kois warns at Slate, “the entrenched sexism in Hollywood suggests this victory won’t be enough to change, once and for all, Hollywood’s notion of what makes for a worthwhile, awards-worthy story.” But it may nonetheless cajole producers into championing new stories and new voices—which is just the kind of effect we hoped Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite success would usher. Aside from their extraordinary significance for inclusivity and diversity, Zhao’s accolades as Nomadland’s director and producer are all the more groundbreaking for the kind of cinema her film embodies. “Nothing about Zhao’s filmmaking,” Justin Chang points out at The L.A. Times—herobservational smarts, fragmentary narratives, slow-building emotions, microscopic budgets, instinctive regard for the viewer’s intelligence — made her a natural candidate for Oscar glory.” Which is why, as the crowning of a work “that sidesteps the industry’s easy, reductive categorizations,” her triumph is so epochal:
I find it wholly remarkable and deeply heartening that an industry known for its love of the obvious and overstated saw the beauty in a directorial voice as delicate and understated as Zhao’s, a voice this conversant with the languages of American independent cinema and international art cinema alike.
A year ago, wrestling with the “Bongslide’s” aftermath, the key question (as raised, among others, by Wesley Morris at the New York Times) was: what will Parasite’s feat mean for the movies going forward, and for American movies in particular? While two Best Picture winners is far too small a sample to draw any conclusion, the hope is that the window for diverse and daring offerings won’t remain an anomaly, but a belated new normal. 
The Current Debate is a biweekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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