Parasite May Have Won Best Picture But The Oscars Still Have A Massive Racism Problem
Parasite: four Oscars and a place in history, yet no acting nominations for its South Korean cast. How come, Chief Willoughby?
Four years on, one would hope #OscarsSoWhite would be somewhat of an epigraph, a spectre of adversity, a memory we seek to escape. Progress has been, and always will be, a one-way path and diversity is an absolute necessity – not as a prize, but an acknowledgement of reality.
Headline-wise, this year’s Academy Awards are a leap forward. But underneath the well-deserved celebrations, there’s still a systemic prejudice in play: BAME actors are low on the golden food chain.
Take stock of the triumphs: Greta Gerwig may not have nabbed an award for Little Women, but Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit Best Adapted Screenplay win made him the first person of Maori descent to win an Oscar.
Then, of course, there’s Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite: an extraordinary accomplishment in cinema worthy of universal worship. Warring against 1917, Joker and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (three safer, albeit brilliant choices befitting of an Academy defined by its snubs), its Best Picture win (along with Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film) was a true triumph.
Since 1929, 2% of all films ever nominated for Best Picture have been foreign-language, and Parasite is the only one to actually take home the prize. However, there’s one curious thing: despite it winning the biggest award, not a single cast member received an acting nomination.
To put that oddity into context, the last time a film won Best Picture without a nomination for any actor was in 2008 – that movie was Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Set in India and made up of a non-white cast – yet their Caucasian peers dominated while Slumdog swept elsewhere, taking home eight Oscars.
Not every Best Picture nominee is worthy of acting nominations. Some are, above all else, directorial achievements. For example, while 1917‘s George MacKay boldly leads the mission, it’s the film’s technical wizardry that attracted plaudits; similarly, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, although valiantly performed, is a sensory assault via the thunder of war, rather than an acting showcase.
However, Parasite is all-encompassing, and just like Dev Patel’s snub for Slumdog, the Academy’s failure to give credit to the work of the ensemble (particularly Song Kang-ho and Park So-dam) is a disquieting reminder of the racial prejudice in play.
Bong’s film tracks the confluence of the Kims – a lower-class, basement apartment-dwelling family of fiercely quick-witted charlatans – with upper-class family the Parks, who live in a glass, grass and art deco paradise in Seoul’s most beautiful home. The filmmaker’s writing and directing may have been crucial in its power, but the cast offers the chaos a tremendous humanity, dignity, and realism that cannot be taken for granted.
In the Academy’s 92-year history of handing out Oscars, 11 foreign language films have been nominated for Best Picture: Parasite; Roma; Amour; Letters from Iwo Jima; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Life is Beautiful; The Postman; Cries and Whispers; The Emigrants; Z; and Le Grande Illusion.
Of those films, six people have been nominated for Oscars. Of those six, four are white (two of whom won in their categories) and two are Mexican (Marina de Tavira and Yalitza Aparicio for Roma). Widening the scope to all of Academy history, a grand total of nine Asian actors have received acting nominations, none of whom are Korean.
Awards season is supposed to be a celebration of the year’s achievements in film. Korean cinema’s influence on the creative landscape of the new millennium is invaluable, with Bong’s films The Host, Snowpiercer and Okja (the latter two feature A-list names like Chris Evans and Jake Gyllenhaal) captivating viewers, not to mention the likes of Oldboy, The Handmaiden and Train to Busan.
Yet, as Bong astutely pointed out: ‘The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.’ Acting nominations have always been skewed in favour of the Western world’s home-grown, domestic white talent, hampered by a systemic ignorance of international performances and a festering habit of ‘legacy’ awards over picking the genuine champions of the moment.
Of the actors and actresses nominated for Oscars at this year’s ceremony, only one was a person of colour: Cynthia Erivo for Harriet. This comes after the efforts of the Academy – following the insurgence of the #OscarsSoWhite movement in 2016 due to zero POC nominations – to diversify the voting board, allegedly adding 2,000 members, raising the percentage of minority members to 16% in 2018, an increase from 8% in 2015.
The bias is clear: only five black people were nominated for Oscars in 2020, down from 15 in 2019, 13 in 2018 and 18 in 2017.
At the BAFTAs earlier this year – criticised for failing to nominate any non-white actors or female directors – Joaquin Phoenix said in his acceptance speech:
I have to say I feel conflicted because so many of my fellow actors that are deserving don’t have that same privilege. I think that we send a very clear message to people of colour that you’re not welcome here. I think that’s the message that we are sending to people that have contributed so much to our medium and our industry, and in ways that we benefit from.
I don’t think anybody wants a handout or preferential treatment, although that’s what we give ourselves every year. I think that people just want to be acknowledged, appreciated and respected for their work.
Bong’s victory is, unequivocally, a game-changing moment. South Korea has finally been recognised as a cultural powerhouse in the art of film-making, and a modern Korean auteur has been properly rewarded after two decades of bending the medium to his creative will.
An historic step yes, but the cast’s exclusion from honours indicates who the true parasites are: the Academy’s archaic voting body that fails, time and time again, to see beyond white and ‘overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles’.
It’s not a case of turning the tide – it’s simply about recognising it exists.
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