AND THE AWARD GOES TOO... [SOMEONE WHITE AND MALE]
Why are women and people of colour STILL being locked out of the game?
By Florence Flood / 22nd January 2020
Illustration by Florence Flood
As the days grow longer, and extended odes to the previous year fade from our memories and social media timelines, the arrival of awards season brings with it old disappointments in new packages.
Both the Academy Awards and the BAFTAs have been criticised this past week for, once again, pedalling a significant lack of diversity in their nominations. This was made more apparent by 2015-16’s #OscarsSoWhite campaigns and the ensuing attempts made by the Academy to diversify their panel, with the unresolved aims of doubling the number of non-white and female members by 2020.
In a failed attempt to avoid more vilification, this year the Academy Awards have nominated 1 person of colour across the 20 possible categories: Cynthia Erivo for her depiction of Harriet Tubman in Harriet. To nominate a single black woman, specifically for her portrayal of an antislavery activist, supports the fallacy that black stories are only noteworthy if they are related to violent injustices. This is compounded by Lupita Nyong’o’s 2014 Best Supporting Actress award for her role as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, but whose spellbinding performance in Jordan Peele’s Us went entirely unnoticed this year. To recognise black stories only in representations of systematic suffering is an invalidation of contemporary black lived experience, and homogenises what dominant culture considers worthy of canonisation. Similarly, the BAFTA list for Best Director features no women at all, and although it does appreciate Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite – already a Cannes Palme d’Or winner – one cannot help but wonder at the token nature of this recommendation as a way to avoid accusations of insularity.
Greta Gerwig’s reimagining of Little Women has been recognised across the board for the acting capability of its individual stars, and specifically at the BAFTA’s for Best Picture.
However, Gerwig’s name appears nowhere in regard to her directorial role – arguably an acclaim that would have acted as a stimulus for her legacy as a female director. Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to have been given the Best Director award in 2010, for 2008’s The Hurt Locker. However, Bigelow’s omittance of this fact in her acceptance speech and her refusal to identify as a ‘feminist filmmaker’ sparked controversy that averted attention from the awards itself, raising questions of the role of those in positions of lesser privilege as cultural educators. Does every film made by a woman really need to have a feminist message? And are films of female emancipation, such as Little Women, only included in shortlists of ‘great cinema’ because of their overt feminism that panders so nicely to filmic theory, while the rest – those that do not adopt race/gender/class as their sole, or at least fundamental, premise – are deemed inauthentic?
It is necessary to highlight that the distinct lack of diversity witnessed in this awards season is not isolated to the film industry. This article by no means wishes to invalidate the nominations, and appreciates the calibre of cinema that has come from 2019; however, I mourn what the whitewashing, and male-washing, of the nominations represents: an aggressive move away from diversity, and a denial o representation of those who are not at the centre of western culture. The lack of representation aligns with the current political environment, with governments in both the UK and USA taking aggressive moves to the right in recent years. The recent stepping down of two non-white, Democratic presidential candidates – Kamala Harris and Cory Booker – is a bleak indicator of the trajectory of America’s political landscape, making Trump’s 2016 campaign of hate appear increasingly as the reality of contemporary politics, and less so as a fluke.
Closer to home, Boris Johnson's landslide win in December’s election, combined with the disarray of Brexit and a rise in membership of far-right groups, illustrates a spectacle of right-wing leanings that have hurtled the country into another four years of life-threatening austerity. The undeniable lack of care demonstrated at a governmental level for those who are in positions of vulnerability based on race, class, gender, and ableism is mirrored in the lack of care hegemonic culture has invested in their stories. Ken Loach’s 2019 film Sorry We Missed You counts the cost of zero-hour contracts both in the private and public sectors, and the labyrinthine jargon of the Department of Work and Pensions. The film’s resonance is increased when we consider the mounting fears of further detriment to employment rights post-Brexit, and the frailty of the NHS. While Sorry We Missed You has been nominated for Outstanding British Film at this year’s BAFTAs, its understated gravitas appears misplaced alongside such glitzy spectacles as Rocketman and the WW1 epic 1917. Institutions such as the BAFTAs, Academy Awards, and, in the music industry, the BRIT Awards – where only 1 woman has been nominated out of 25 mixed gender categories – have the potential to counter increasing political polarisation, rather than replicate it, by opening the door to more nuanced representations of global society.
Saying this, all hope is not lost in regards to 2020 nominations.
We can find small solace in the new BAFTA category of Casting Directors that sees Sarah Crowe achieve recognition for her admirably diverse casting of David Copperfield, demonstrative of how classic stories can be refigured to modern times. Furthermore, The Critics’ Choice Awards went some way to diversify representations of black lives, awarding accolades to Us, When They See Us and Dolemite is My Name. However, the Critics’ Choice Award’s decision to grant both Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) and Sam Mendes (1917) the award for Best Director somewhat undermines these
This manoeuver was mirrored by the 2019 Man Booker Prize, which saw Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, the first winner by a woman of colour, achieving only alongside Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, a literary heavyweight who won the Prize in 2000. Evaristo, on her book that charts the narratives of 12, mostly black, British women, said ‘we black British women know that if we don’t write ourselves into literature, no one else will’, a statement that is ironised in light of this duel win. The resounding statement of Evaristo and Joon-ho’s tandem victories is that culturally defining institutions are unable to recognise the achievements of people of colour unless they are tempered by the already heralded talents of those at the centre of cultural discourse. To call for an overhaul of such institutions as the Academy Awards is unrealistic. However, by recognising relational patterns between our current political climate and the marginalisation of stories from those not in positions of privilege, we can begin a productive discourse of resistance, which is where hope for the new decade’s cultural content lies.
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