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How the Oscars industrial complex makes the Oscars less diverse

The long and torturous awards season creates an unnecessarily limited vision of what an Oscar movie is.

Lupita Nyong’o stars in Us, Song Kang-ho stars in Parasite, and Jennifer Lopez stars in Hustlers.
Lupita Nyong’o, Song Kang-ho, and Jennifer Lopez all seemed like they might be Oscar nominees. Then none of them were.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The 2020 Oscar nominations felt, to many, like the return of a trend the awards were supposed to have moved past: a non-diverse slate of nominees.

In the wake of two straight years without any acting nominees of color (in 2015 and 2016), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which oversees the Oscars) made structural changes to its membership, inviting in thousands of new, younger voters who were notably more diverse than the traditionally older, whiter, maler Oscar voting body.

The Academy remains very old and white and male, but those changes did result in three straight years when the nominations slate was notably more diverse than it had ever been. More people of color were nominated for and won acting Oscars. Women and people of color were nominated in the directing category more frequently (though still all too rarely). The first woman ever was nominated in the Cinematography category.

The 2020 nominations seem to have brought that progress to a screeching halt. Only one performer of color was nominated across all four acting categories. The directing lineup features no women, despite numerous acclaimed films (and one Best Picture nominee — Greta Gerwig’s Little Women) having been directed by women.

It’s entirely possible that the 2020 Oscars will prove to be a notable blip. Many of the year’s less prominent categories are encouragingly more diverse than they’ve been in the past. (The Best Documentary Feature category, for instance, contains four films told in a language other than English and four films with women directors or co-directors.)

But the story of the 2020 Oscars also involves numerous diverse contenders being pushed aside in favor of cis, straight white men (or white women in the case of the acting categories). While many of the nominees are highly deserving by any measure, the picture they paint in aggregate elicits a depressing feeling of a major setback.

Naturally, this problem has led to pushback against the Academy. But the Academy isn’t the only force affecting Oscar outcomes. Yes, the Academy is the only body that actually votes on who is nominated, but by the time that voting occurs, many, many other groups have weighed in, and they’ve often indirectly winnowed the list down from lots of contenders to a handful. And throughout that process, more diverse contenders are often shunted aside.

Let’s take a look at how this happens with three performers from 2019 films who could have been nominated for the 2020 Oscars but were not, to see how diversity is too often stamped out at every step of the nominations process.

1) Lupita N’yongo, for Us

Lupita Nyong’o in Us.
Lupita Nyong’o played two different characters in Us, the sort of technical feat that often leads to an Oscar nomination.
Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures

In theory, every single movie that receives at least a week’s release in a theater in both New York and Los Angeles, and doesn’t debut on television, is eligible for an Academy Award. But, as even the most casual observers will know, it’s not remotely true that every movie released in a given year is considered for an Academy Award. Oscar voters don’t have time to watch every movie released in a given year, because nobody does. So cuts have to be made, and priorities of which movies to watch have to be set.

The most obvious cuts are ones nobody might disagree with — movies with terrible reviews or movies that outright bombed at the box office rarely manage a run at Oscar glory. Beyond that, it’s rare for solidly reviewed movies without raves, or movies that made decent money but didn’t become massive hits, to be nominated, especially if they’re in genres the Oscars rarely reward (comedy, horror, superhero films, etc.).

Once you factor out all of those films, you’ll end up with a list of between 30 and 50 titles, depending on how good mainstream movies were in any given year. And with only five to 10 Best Picture nominees, that field has to be narrowed somehow. Every year, beginning with the three major film festivals that happen in September — Venice, Telluride, and Toronto — any movie or performer who could have a reasonable chance at an Oscar is ruthlessly scrutinized by an entire industry built up around the Oscars.

The first round of this process is driven by the large group of prognosticators, bloggers, and journalists who make predicting the Oscars their primary beat. Their job is to figure out which movies released before the September festival season might prove to be Oscar players, and then to sort through the endless list of titles released in the last four months of the year to separate accomplished contenders from those who won’t have what it takes to make it to the ceremony.

Film writer Mark Harris, who currently covers the Oscars for Vanity Fair and has written about the awards for over a decade, likens the September festival season to the Iowa caucuses. Both events happen so early in their respective campaign seasons, that they take on outsized importance and are able to inflate buzz and hype in one direction or another. And if a performance or film is acclaimed at one of these festivals, by critics or film journalists or Oscar prognosticators, film studios — hungry for scraps of information on which movies to support — shift their plans accordingly.

“There’s so little talk about Oscar movies and so much hasn’t been seen that three people at the Toronto Film Festival saying an actress is a sure bet for a Best Supporting Actress nomination for a movie suddenly assumes wildly inflated importance to the people who will eventually be allocating resources for those campaigns,” Harris told me.

But if you’re an Oscar pundit, trying to predict which movies will perform well often means looking for movies that resemble the ones the Academy has honored before. And because the Academy has a long history of rewarding movies that privilege stories about white men (because the Academy has long been dominated by white men), an expectation of what sorts of films “belong” starts to form. That can sideline deserving works of different genres or that center on different perspectives.

“The Academy has done a laudable job diversifying the membership of its voting body over the last few years, but the more difficult job is going to be interrogating how the last 91 years of Oscar canon have told us certain movies are worthier than others,” Kyle Buchanan, who covers the awards for the New York Times, told me via email. “Dramas are deemed more important than comedies, a whiz-bang war movie is considered to be a more significant directorial achievement than an intimate family drama, and stories by men are more often rewarded than those told by and about women.”

Just look at the case of Lupita Nyong’o in Us. She won more awards from critics organizations than any other Best Actress contender in 2019 — including the Best Actress prize from the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle, typically a good predictor of Oscar glory to come.

But no matter her success with critics, she remained mired in sixth place on GoldDerby’s roundup of Oscar prognosticators’ predictions. Yes, she was in a horror movie (typically not an Oscar-friendly genre). But it was a critically beloved horror movie that was also a box office smash, from director Jordan Peele, whose previous horror film (Get Out) had been an Oscar contender. And she was playing two completely different roles, the sort of showy technical achievement the Oscars often go for.

Nevertheless, the prognosticators were right. Nyong’o was not one of the five names read on Oscar nomination morning. Joyce Eng, of GoldDerby, points to the anti-horror bias in coloring perceptions of Nyong’o’s work, but she also points to the kinds of roles the Oscars have historically preferred to see women of color play, which rarely involve women in positions of relative power.

“With Lupita, she won for 12 Years a Slave [in which she played an enslaved woman], and she didn’t get in for the awesome Jekyll and Hyde contemporary film,” Eng says.

Clearly, prognosticators were correct to be skeptical of Nyong’o’s chances, even at a point when they hadn’t seen most of the performances they were predicting over hers. (Us came out in March of 2019 and was on everyone’s radar almost all year, while eventual Best Actress nominee Saoirse Ronan’s turn in Little Women didn’t come out until Christmas Day.)

But there’s a chicken-egg quality to this discussion. If the people whose job it is to say which movies are serious Oscar contenders had supported Nyong’o from the first, would she have been taken more seriously as a contender? Or is a horror performance from a woman of color simply so far outside the Oscars’ comfort zone that these prognosticators were right to say so? It’s an impossible question to answer, but a few other snubbed performances from 2019 may offer further hints toward an answer to this question.

2) Song Kang-ho, for Parasite

A scene from Parasite, in which a family is folding pizza boxes.
Song Kang-ho (second from left) was seen as a possible nominee for Parasite.
Courtesy of TIFF

Parasite is a tricky film to prioritize when it comes to choosing which actors to push in an Oscar campaign. For starters, it’s a true ensemble piece, meaning there are no clear distinctions among which performers are lead and which are supporting. For another, every single actor in it is pitch-perfect, but they probably can’t all be nominated. And for still another, the movie is not in English, which is less of a demerit with Oscars voters than it used to be but still stands in the way of a nomination more often than not.

Yet distributor Neon decided to put its primary Oscar efforts behind famed South Korean actor Song Kang-ho in the Supporting Actor category. As Mr. Kim, the patriarch of a poor family that cons a rich one, he’s one of Parasite’s most sympathetic characters, and he’s played by an actor recognizable to American and British voters, thanks to his previous turns in movies like The Host and Snowpiercer.

Considering Parasite was likely to receive a Best Picture nomination, it wasn’t out of the question that Song would pull out a surprise acting nod, especially after he won at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. (A similar turn of events pulled Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira into the 2019 Oscar race for their performances in Roma.)

Oscar prognosticators were skeptical, but Song quickly became one of the main faces of the film on the awards circuit, doing all the glad-handing that is so crucial to an Oscar campaign. And yet he simply never gained as much traction as he might have for one simple reason: He couldn’t seem to get nominated at any of the important awards preceding the Oscars.

Despite Parasite’s consistently strong performance with the assorted precursor awards — the most important of which are the Golden Globes and those given out by Hollywood’s many unions — the film didn’t receive recognition for any individual performers. (However, its ensemble cast did win the award for best ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild awards.)

Failing to collect precursor nominations, perhaps even more than being favored by prognosticators, has a deleterious effect on a film or performer’s Oscar nomination chances. If you’re a tired Academy member trying to figure out which films to prioritize watching over the holidays before your Oscar ballot comes due in early January, well, an organization like the Hollywood Foreign Press Association — which votes on the Golden Globes — is right there with a readymade list for you to peruse. But where just under 8,500 people vote on the Oscars, around 90 vote on the Globes. As a result, the HFPA and other small organizations that hold their awards early in the season have a disproportionate level of influence per member.

“When it comes to any voting process, I think people like to feel swept up in momentum. I found it interesting that at the Critics Choice Awards, held just after the Golden Globes, the critics picked so many of the same Globe winners even when there were other contenders they had generally given better reviews to. I guess people just like to back a winning horse,” Buchanan said.

The desire to back a winner has felt particularly acute in 2020, thanks to the Oscar season being hyper-compressed, with barely a month between the Golden Globes (January 6) and the Oscars (February 9). Usually, the window runs much closer to six or seven weeks.

“What are voters actually watching? And how much time did they have to watch anything?” says Erik Anderson, editor of the site AwardsWatch. “If you are a working actor [who’s in the Academy], you are not going to have a whole lot of time to watch 35 movies and vote on them. The voters that do have that time are the ones that don’t work that much and they are the old-school voters.

“In a shortened season, I think it’s why we got four movies that have 10 or more nominations [1917, The Irishman, Joker, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood], which has never ever happened. People saw fewer movies than they did in previous years.”

But whatever the influence that prognosticators and precursors hold, they are not ultimately voting on the Oscars. And sometimes, the Oscars have only the Oscars to blame for their predominantly white slate.

3) Jennifer Lopez, for Hustlers

Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez in “Hustlers.”
Jennifer Lopez was seen as a sure thing Best Supporting Actress nominee — until she wasn’t nominated.
STX Entertainment

Right up until the morning of the Oscar nominations on January 13, prognosticators were expecting a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Jennifer Lopez, in recognition of her turn as a fiercely protective and maternal stripper in the box office hit Hustlers. She had received nominations from all of the major precursor awards, and her performance was exactly the type the Oscars love to reward: a big star in a showy role that is at once impeccably performed and a reminder of why she became such a big star in the first place.

And then the Oscars ignored her. Why?

Hustlers did well at the box office and made over a hundred million dollars. Critics loved it. Fans loved it, but it’s just another movie that doesn’t fit in their typical vision of what an Oscar movie is, because it sees strippers fleecing men. And I feel like if it was a movie about male strippers fleecing men or even women, then it probably would have done better,” says GoldDerby’s Eng.

It’s impossible to say exactly why Lopez wasn’t nominated. For as much as writers like me like to talk about “the Academy,” it is, ultimately, just a body made up of individual voters who all have their own reasons for the choices they make. Ultimately, we can only guess; every new Oscar year is another data point that adds up to a fuller picture of what makes an “Oscar movie.”

And that picture changes from year to year. Vanity Fair’s Harris points out to me that 50 years ago, it was considered an Oscar cliché that women won for playing “bad girls” — a.k.a. sex workers — but in the 21st century, that’s no longer a real path to Oscar success. Similarly, the “it’s time” narrative, when an actor who’s never won before finally takes home the little gold man, is starting to lose its potency, as Glenn Close (who lost on her seventh attempt at a win in 2019) could tell you.

But the ultimate responsibility for the Oscars lies with the Academy itself. No prognosticator or precursor award can definitively affect the outcome. And yet they can hope to influence that conversation around the edges, especially early in the awards season, when nobody knows much of anything just yet.

“Here’s my problem: I don’t think it’s viable for prognosticators to say anymore, ‘My job is just to read the tea leaves,’ because prognosticators, from the minute they start talking, are a tea leaf. Like, you are part of the system of noise and the buzz and attention that you are professing to solely observe. There’s no way around that,” Harris says.

“So if that’s true, my feeling is give into it and make better noise. You have a say in this, as much as you would like to imagine that you’re just standing off to one side watching it. So if you’re a part of it, you can no longer say, ‘Well, my job isn’t to move the needle at all.’ It may not be your job to move the needle, but it is your effect to move the needle.”

The responsibility of diversifying any given year’s Oscar slate is on the Academy, ultimately. But let’s not pretend that the Oscar conversation doesn’t become steadily less diverse as the season winds from the September festivals to the big show. There are numerous points where someone could stop and say, “Wait a minute! This person should be nominated!” based less on whether their performance seems of a piece with previous Oscar nominees and more on the pure quality of their work.

The 2019–’20 Oscar season might end up being an anomaly — but only if everyone involved in the process has worked to make it one.

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