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Awards Show Politics: The (Not So) Impartial Oscars

Image via Chris Young/AFP

It is funny how the Oscars, a supposedly apolitical event, are as divisive and controversial as US elections. Certainly, there is a political angle to the Oscars. The nominees and winner in each category are voted on by members of the Academy, who each have their own agendas and relationships with actors, directors, and studios. But recently, a new stream of debate has emerged in the realm of filmmaking and casting. In the face of criticism surrounding gender and racial bias, the Academy has imposed a set of relatively mild diversity standards, set to take effect in 2024. These rules simultaneously shadow filmmakers and fail to meaningfully address lacking gender and racial diversity in the film industry. Rather than forcing change through diversity quotas, the Academy needs to take active steps to recognize films that portray unique stories. To truly reward excellence in filmmaking, the Academy must shed its hypocritical exterior of empty speeches on the need for diversity and instead focus on efforts to practice what it preaches by reforming the internal workings of the system. 

It is no secret that the Oscars are no longer as popular as they once were. While television ratings have improved by 12 percent this year, last year’s ratings were the second-worst in history of the Oscars. In fact, the Oscars ratings have declined by roughly 75 percent since 2014. After the Harvey Weinstein scandal, #MeToo movement, and #OscarsSoWhite movement, the Academy’s reputation hangs precariously in the balance. To combat bad press as a result of these events, the years following 2015 saw a relative increase in women and Black artists receiving award nominations. In 2017, for instance, seven of the 20 acting nominations went to people from ethnic minority backgrounds. 

This development appears to have been nothing more than a trend. As Oscar winner Viola Davis pointed out: There will be a “plethora of African American films nominated one year and then none the next.” This year, yet again, the Academy skipped over many films, directors, and actors worthy of recognition. In the Best Actress category, Viola Davis in The Woman King or Danielle Deadwyler in Till were not nominated, despite these films receiving Rotten Tomato scores of 94 percent and 96 percent, respectively. This particular snub was even mentioned by Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel in his opening speech. 

After two years of having female directors among those nominated in the Best Director category, this year the Academy again failed to nominate a single woman. Sarah Polley won the Best Adapted Screenplay for her work on the critically acclaimed film, Women Talking, but was not nominated in the Best Director category. So while the Academy has made some progress—Chloe Zhao became the first Asian woman in history to win a Best Director award in 2021, and, in 2022, Jane Champion won the prize for The Power of the Dog—they have now returned to the pre-#OscarsSoWhite normal. Similarly, in 2019, Greta Gerwig was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for Little Women, but snubbed in the Best Director category—despite the film’s critical acclaim and Rotten Tomato score of 95 percent. Both these films—Little Women and Women Talking—have something in common. They are feminist portrayals of female protagonists and male side characters. The Woman King is similar, as it focuses on women’s experiences, but unlike the other two, it received no nominations at all. Clearly, the nomination process is too politicized for the art to be the focus. Behind the scenes of all this criticism lies the Academy’s intricate nomination process. 

Despite a slight increase in diverse and representative nominations, the Academy still struggles to accurately award films—both in terms of merit and diversity. In 2020, the Academy invited 819 new members to diversify its voting body. Despite this change, it continues to nominate those who have traditionally ruled the screen. Recent headlines in the media have been especially critical of the Academy. Less attention is devoted to celebrating the art of filmmaking. Rather than directing attention to the acting or cinematography in films such as Till and The Woman King, the Academy’s obvious bias forces us to center the politics surrounding the films more so than the films themselves.

Films themselves have contained more political messaging in recent years. In fact, in the aftermath of #OscarsSoWhite, 2018 saw the highest number of political films recorded in the Oscars’ history. Two of them, Vice and BlacKKKlansman, even featured video clips of former President Donald Trump. Similarly, this year, Top Gun: Maverick came under fire for portraying the US military as a “beacon of virtue.” These films are proof that the way we view films is deeply informed by our politics and existing worldview. While politics can never wholly be separated from art as a result, awards show politics in the form of obvious snubs needs to be reduced so it does not overshadow the main focus—the artistry. 

The Academy should not bear all of the responsibility for changing the filmmaking industry—in which, beyond award nominations, films with a diverse cast are few and far between. But honoring the few who have managed to achieve excellence despite all obstacles should be the Academy’s way of slowly changing the systemic issues that persist. By judging purely on the level of artistic excellence, films like Till deserve to be recognized. And the Academy has the power to do so. After all, as the most acclaimed awards show in Hollywood, who could have more influence on the future of films? 

The Academy should capitalize on its sway within the film industry without being forced by woke culture to put ineffective diversity standards or by televising speeches on diversity during every ceremony. Slowly changing the system from the inside is the key and by doing this, the Academy could reassert its influence in the modern world. Films of brilliant caliber with diverse casts and storylines will come up naturally. After all, before Wonder Woman, no one thought a film about a female superhero would be successful. But it broke all records. With the recognition of an Oscar on their side, such films can change the landscape of modern cinema.