Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 23, 2020

A breakdown of everything you need to know about the 2020 Oscars

By BRANDT MATTHEWS | January 30, 2020

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Jose Manuel mazintosh / CC BY-SA 2.0 The academy has historically failed to diversify its growing membership.

We’ve all had that experience: freshman fall, standing against the wall in some musty house and tilting your ear towards your conversation partner as they shout over the music. You make sure to soak in every detail — this could be your new bestie. But WOW they really like movies. 

The conversation drags from what you saw this summer to lists of all-time favorites, and before you know it, they’re even giving you their Letterboxd username and asking to go see a revival screening of a Jean-Luc Godard film this weekend. It finally dawns on you. How could you not have noticed? Were you not warned by the Dr. Martens, the black turtleneck and the American Spirit Yellows poking out from the pocket of a jean jacket? You’re trapped talking to a film major.

Buckle up, because it’s awards season, the biggest crossover between film fanatic and mainstream culture — and the biggest danger zone for having your ear talked off by cinema fans looking for anyone who will listen. It casts an annual wave of both excitement and disappointment as works of art are suddenly thrown into a brutal competitive space that echoes far beyond whether or not your favorites are winners. 

Any given year can be marked by the uplifting of stories and perspectives that previously went uncelebrated and unacknowledged or the seeming conformity of a Hollywood establishment that feels increasingly out of touch with public taste. As the disparity between Rotten Tomatoes’ critic scores and its audience scores is brought into the conversation surrounding nearly every major studio release this year, it appears 2019 is no different. 

The Directors Guild of America awards took place this past Saturday, and with the British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTAs) coming next Sunday, the long stream of ceremonies preceding the Oscars is finally winding down as everyone prepares for the highest-rated awards program in the United States. 

Before I can even think about dissecting this year’s Oscar nominees, I want to take a brief moment to shout out some films of 2019 that unfortunately weren’t nominated for any awards. I’d also like to let you know where to watch them so you can support these incredible filmmakers. 

Moving in chronological order, Jordan Peele’s sophomore flick, Us, sees the Oscar-winning writer-director take on the horror of, “What if you were your own worst enemy?” Lupita Nyong’o’s performance as multiple versions of the same character brings a level of uncanniness that propels the film from start to finish while the script is packed with the type of symbolism and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it details that are sure to please fans of Peele’s breakout film, Get Out. It is currently streaming on HBO and Hulu. 

A24 released two incredible identity-focused films this past summer, the first of which was Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. The film examines the Asian American experience through an immigrant family’s return to China, and the majority of the film’s dialogue is in Chinese. This both cultivates an immersive experience for audiences and celebrates American diversity — it shows that an American film doesn’t necessarily have to be an English-language film. (For this reason, it’s nomination in the foreign language category at the Golden Globes amongst four international films felt disappointing for many.) It is currently available to rent and purchase through video on-demand. 

Another A24 film, Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man In San Francisco, uses gentrification as a backdrop for an examination of the myth of self. Who are we when we’re forced to confront our false self-perceptions? Every aspect of this film, from the score to the cinematography to the performances, culminate to craft a nuanced discussion of these insecurities and the growth that can spring from them. It’s currently streaming on Prime Video, and you should watch it immediately. 

While many are calling Taika Waititi’s political satire Jojo Rabbit the “perfect film for our time,” those who’ve seen Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life may beg to differ. Malick’s film chronicles the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who refuses to swear allegiance to Hitler during World War II. Over a sprawling three hours, the film provides a meditation on the power of the individual to create good in the face of insurmountable evil, a message of encouragement I’m sure many of us could use in these troubling times. It’s currently in theaters. 

However, a film can be snubbed even if it is nominated. As we look at the increasing frustration with lack of recognition for female filmmakers and people of color, I think it’s important to examine how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences operates. Who exactly are the people voting for these awards, and how did they earn that power?

Well for starters, the Academy is divided into 17 branches based on various aspects of filmmaking. Each of these branches determine the nominees for their specific branch. For example, the actors decide the acting nominees, the writers decide the writing nominees and everyone gets to submit nominations for Best Picture. Once the nominees are determined by each branch, all active members of the Academy (around 7,000 people) get to vote on the winners. They have four weeks to watch any nominated films they haven’t seen before voting closes, with watching all nominated films enforced on an honor system. 

If you want to join the Academy, there are two ways of going about it. Every Oscar nominee and Oscar winner is immediately considered for membership by the Academy Board of Governors. 

But what if you haven’t worked on any Oscar-worthy films? You, too, can become a member of the Academy through sponsorship. Basically, if two members of your future branch choose to sponsor you, the Board of Governors will consider inviting you to join the Academy. The stipulations of this are that Academy members can only sponsor one person per year, and that there’s no formal application process. So that means that the only way in is to be sponsored by current Academy members. 

If you feel like this may breed an exclusive and clique-y culture, you wouldn’t be the first! 

Let’s take it back to 2015 when a movement against this culture found its concrete front through the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. With not a single person of color nominated across four acting categories for the second year in a row, it was quite clear that the Academy was facing a diversity crisis amongst its voting base in a major way. 

After weeks of bad press and boycotts from high-profile stars like Spike Lee and Will Smith, the Academy announced a retroactive change to its membership policy in late January 2016 — new members joining through sponsorship would no longer receive lifetime appointments. Instead, they’re allowed to vote for 10 years. If they’re active in the film industry during those 10 years, it gets extended another 10. If they do this twice (have actively worked in the film industry for 30 years), they can receive a lifetime Academy membership. 

This was meant to flush out a perceived large number of older Academy members who haven’t worked in film in decades, and thus may be, let’s say, out of touch. Coupled with a pledge to double the number of people of color and women by 2020 (this year), it seemed optimistic that we may soon no longer have to bemoan a lack of diverse nominees. 

Juxtaposing this with our 2020 nominees, it’s pretty clear things didn’t work out as we’d hoped. With the back-to-back Best Picture wins of Moonlight and The Shape of Water in 2017 and 2018, respectively, it was beginning to feel like the Academy’s recognition of diversity was changing as well as its actual taste. As a result, the win of the white-savior narrative Green Book last year felt like a particular gut punch. That coupled with only two actors of color being nominated across four acting categories this year, and a multitude of high-profile snubs across multiple categories — such as those toward Alma Har’el and Greta Gerwig for directing and toward the cast of Parasite for acting — it feels like the old Academy is here to stay. What the hell is going on?

While the Academy promised to double their people of color and female membership by 2020, the initial demographic numbers were unknown. And despite new classes of Academy members being far more diverse than previous years, as of 2018 the Academy was still only 28-percent female and 13-percent non-white, according to Refinery29. 

With the current rules in place, it’s going to take time before we can expect the Academy to have a demographic makeup more representative of the U.S. population. And while there’s hope this process may be accelerated as Hollywood itself becomes more diverse, it’s important to remember whose best picture is really being awarded. 

Another aspect of this worth our consideration is diversity of interest. While it makes sense that filmmakers have the best eye for giving film awards, a quick look at nominations shows some interesting potential biases. I first became aware of this when someone pointed out that Ford V Ferrari was the first automotive film to be nominated for Best Picture (a win for representation?). What other types of films may be overlooked? Let’s consider the professions of the characters for which actors got performance nominations: a film director, a theatre director, an actor, a stand-up comic, two actresses, a writer, a reporter and, for good measure, the pope and an abolitionist icon. 

Remember that kid you talked to at the party earlier in this article? He (and hundreds like him) may one day grow up to actually work in the film industry and vote in the Academy. It’s all starting to make sense now, isn’t it? In that light, it makes sense that a film like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would be getting serious Best Picture buzz when Hollywood is at the wheel. It also starts to answer some diversity questions when the Academy keeps voting for films about an industry that’s historically been dominated by white men. 

Where do we go from here? I’m honestly not sure. Maybe Parasite will win Best Picture and we’ll suddenly feel like Hollywood is moving in the right direction again. Maybe Joaquin Phoenix will win for his performance in Joker and we’ll all feel a bit more uneasy talking to those film bros. Regardless, the diversity issue at the Oscars is both structural and cultural with no clear solutions at hand. 

But if we’re going to take the moral of A Hidden Life in stride and believe in our ability to work towards a better world, it seems like a good first step is supporting female filmmakers and filmmakers of color — go see their movies. And, regardless of awards buzz, never forget the power of a good movie to help us understand those unlike ourselves. 

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