Questioning the importance of Oscars amid cultural change


Henry Owens and Arushi Talwar

The 92nd Academy Awards took place last Sunday, raising questions among students about the relevance of these awards in 2020. Over the years, the Oscars have been criticized for nearly everything, from the host to the nominees’ lack of diversity, and this year was no exception.
Former hosts Steve Martin and Chris Rock kicked off the night with a comedic monologue, ironically pointing out the “progress” the Academy has made by going from no black actors nominated in 1929 to one in 2020.
Only one actor of color was nominated for any of the four acting categories, Cynthia Erivo, who portrayed Harriet Tubman in the film Harriet. This was a disappointment for many, especially considering the backlash against the award show in previous years for almost exclusively celebrating white nominees.
“There’s racial and sexist bias within the film industry, from very few black people being cast in films to the perpetuation of people of color (POC) and female stereotypes,” Alecia Daley-Tulloch (11) said. “POC and women were excluded from the film industry since it began and its disregard of actors from those communities is still prevalent.”
Activist April Reign created the #OscarsSoWhite movement in 2015, at which point the Academy was comprised of about 92 percent white and 75 percent male members. Since then, white membership has declined slightly to 84 percent white and 68 percent male.
Some students feel as though the racial disparities evident in the Academy Awards amplify the disadvantages people of color face in general.
“That’s just how society is,” Taussia Boadi (12) said. “White people are recognized for the work Black people do at the same level. There’s implicit biases that exist within all of us, but in certain situations, like the Oscars, it’s more pronounced.”
Further, not a single female director was nominated for the third year in a row. One major “snub” was Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig, who also was not nominated. This was surprising considering how well the movie did, Ariela Shuchman (9) said.
“Little Women was an incredible film,” Bender said. “To me, the thing that was most well done was the directing, so that was an obvious snub. Greta Gerwig was able to capture the essence in every aspect of the film, accomplishing her goal of honoring the spirit of the girls.”
Despite the longstanding issues of diversity, the Academy did break precedent by giving the Best Picture and Best International Feature Film awards to the same movie: Parasite. This was the first time in Oscar history that a foreign film won Best Picture, and it was a significant step in bolstering Asian representation in film, Brian Wu (12) said.
“Bong Joon Ho blew the lid off of South Korea’s class divide with his movie by showing the rest of the word just how extreme it is,” Jonathan Mong (11) said.
“It was very relevant to society, new and innovative,” Jaden Kirshner (11) said. “The Academy opened their mind, forgetting about foreign language and a non-American cast and director.”
Eliza Bender (12) enjoyed watching Parasite and was happy that it won, but the fact that it got Best Picture and Best International Film demonstrates a flaw with those categories themselves, she said. “The Best International Film category is there to highlight films that wouldn’t otherwise be highlighted. But, I think the Oscars should move towards a direction where we’re acknowledging films regardless,” Bender said.
Though the Academy Awards are highly respected in the film industry, the legitimacy of the Academy’s decisions is often called into question. Mong believes that too few of the most nominated films are actually popular, and awards only go to a very specific type of dramatic film.
“A lot of people that are not getting nominated take on more modern and innovative roles, and they aren’t getting recognized for that,” Kirshner said. Their traditional view impedes the nominations year after year, something the Academy should aim to expand, he said.
“The Oscars are completely disconnected with modern society,” Mong said. “It seems more like old white men trying to cling onto the last vestiges of their influence before our generation comes and takes it all away.”
Another major concern with the Academy Awards is that the winners are chosen not simply based on merit. “I think there are a lot of outside influencing factors, such as money and people in positions of power,” Dylan O’Reilly (10) said. “It doesn’t invalidate the entire awards show, but it does undermine the legitimacy of the awards to an extent.”
Lucas Glickman (10) does not believe the Oscars are particularly important because of how much money plays into who wins. “It cost millions of dollars in advertising just to get nominated,” he said. “Yes, most of the time they’re good movies that get chosen, but it just comes down to who has the bigger budget to spend.”
Jordan Ferdman (11) noted the Academy’s negative history with sexual abuse allegations. “The infrequent nomination and awarding of women and people of color is one thing, and you pair that with the fact that the voting committee seems to have very little problem with handing out awards to abusers. It’s a combination that’s quite terrifying,” she said.
Still, the Oscars are a way to earn acknowledgment for the hard work all the actors put into their industry. “Acting is really hard, and some characters are extremely difficult to play. The Oscars are a great way of recognizing all the work that goes into it,” Mazyar Azmi (10) said.
Although she uses the ceremony as an opportunity to live tweet criticisms, Ferdman does believe there are still some merits to the Oscars. “I tend to enjoy the speeches, and I think that there is some sense of community with people who like people who are rooting for the same films.”
Another benefit of the ceremony is the exposure it brings to some lesser-known films. “[The Oscars] allow a lot more people to watch these films, for example with Parasite, and it gives a lot of films more exposure,” O’Reilly said.
As streaming services like Netflix and Hulu’s prominence in the film industry grows, many people feel less inclined to go out of their way to go to the movie theatre, Shuchman said.
“Since there are so many ways you can consume that kind of content, it seems pointless to pay extra, when you can just watch it from your couch,” she said.
Some, like Kirshner feel like Netflix actually helped some movies gain popularity, such as Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Though the film didn’t win an Oscar, Kirshner believed it still received attention it otherwise would not have because it was released on the streaming service.
To people like Dalia Pustilnik (10), going to the movies is more of a family outing she looks forward to, regardless of whether the films are easily accessible online.
Still, some moviegoers appreciate certain films more when they are on the big screen, like the Oscar-nominated movie 1917, Azmi said.
“If I want to see a movie in the theatre I will, because some movies are a lot better in the theatre than at home,” he said.
“Obviously streaming has changed the way we consume entertainment, but movie theatres still exist, right now at least,” Bender said. “I think in some ways, the Oscars is a form of celebration for movies and films and cinema as an art.”
Regardless of how much support or dissent the Oscars receive, it is clear that they are on the cusp of evolution as the film industry faces unprecedented change.