Award season 2021: performative action or real change?


Martin Vorel

The world-famous “Oscar” statue stands as a symbol for the highest achievements of the entertainment industry, but as well its dark and long history of discrimination and exclusion.

Casey Friedman, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Most WHS students when asked would probably assert that they don’t pay much attention to award show nominations or wins for film and television, but in this pandemic year, conversations on diversity and representation are continuing to come to the forefront of the entertainment industry, and we should all be paying attention.

After outcry over past years’ nominations and this year’s telecast, it came to light that among the 90 members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), the voting body of the Golden Globes, there is not a single Black voter. This discovery, and the press and protests around it, echoed similar sentiments from the past surrounding the Academy of Motion Pictures and the #OscarsSoWhite movement. 

“The lack of diversity in general is problematic, but also the lack of critics, judges, directors, and producers who are people of color,” senior Radhika Mishra expressed. “We need more people of color running the show, not just acting in it.”

The Academy and the HFPA have both promised to diversify their voting bodies and add new measures to ensure they are considering productions with adequate representation in front of and behind the camera, but this year’s Golden Globes were a clear signal that Hollywood’s promise of diversity and inclusion is still an empty gesture for the sake of economic gain and propriety, not an actual movement towards equality. The Academy Awards did, however, feature films with a much wider range of diversity and representation compared to the Golden Globes, but even some of their decisions fell short in the end.

 With “diverse” nominations that include a movie that has been accused of ableism on several accounts (Music), and a caricature performance of a gay man that many have branded tone-deaf if not outright offensive (The Prom), the Black filmmakers and performers that were blatantly overlooked at the Golden Globes this year are all the more apparently missing. 

“Hollywood views representation as having one or two Black characters whose only role is to aid the white main character,” Mishra said. “That is blatant tokenism and overlooks the many other races, ethnicities, and identities that actually make up a diverse cast and plot.”

This bias then allows Hollywood to view representation as a quota to fill or box to check and therefore forsakes meaningful and multifaceted stories for the sake of the more easily digestible. A clear example of that this year was in the sake of the extremely well-acclaimed HBO series I May Destroy You written, created, produced, co-directed, and starred in by Michaela Coel. This emotional and complex take on Coel’s personal experiences with sexual assault was snubbed in a category that featured other shows (like Emily in Paris) that critics and viewers alike had panned. 

But it just goes to show that Hollywood wants diversity when that diversity is easy and convenient, or even necessary. Those in search of money and approval rather than good art will seek out stories that are less hard-hitting, less blunt, and less outside the norm. 

“It is odd how I May Destroy You doesn’t focus on race directly and was snubbed at the same time. It’s almost like white people only like stories of black people when it’s about their race,” Mishra added.

Regina King was nominated at the Golden Globes as a best director for One Night in Miami, a dramatization of an interaction between several well-known and celebrated Black historical figures and Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah was recognized in several categories at the Oscars with actor Daniel Kaluuya even winning Best Supporting Actor. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, an expository war film that calls out the treatment of Black veterans and the hypocrisies of the Vietnam War that was predicted by many to be nominated for Best Picture, was overlooked by both award shows. One Night in Miami and Judas and the Black Messiah are “safe” to these voting bodies, we know these characters and these stories. Da 5 Bloods is “not.” It’s full of angry and morally questionable Black men and hard to swallow truths. 

“White people often don’t enjoy stories of Black people unless they themselves can feel accomplished after watching them,” Mishra explained. “They see watching movies about systemic racism with a happy ending as a way of being anti-racist, but being anti-racist is an action that goes far beyond watching movies.”

The problem with this watered-down and white-accomodating form of representation is that it allows for more real and nuanced stories to fall between the cracks. Without mainstream recognition, these movies and TV shows won’t reach as wide an audience or continue to be invested in by Hollywood.

“I would personally like to see more characters that look like me, somewhere in the middle of White and Black, without being portrayed as another ‘lost’ mixed kid, only associating themselves with part of their race to fit in,” junior Hannah A-Rahim said.

Representation in media is vital for young people to be able to see themselves on screen and to build their self-image, or even their dreams and aspirations. 

“I used to want to be an actress myself when I was younger, but seeing virtually no South Asian representation is disheartening. I used to think having dreams like that was only attainable for White people, and in a way it is,” Mishra said.

While this year was mostly disheartening in terms of recognition and meaningful representation, there were some positive advances. Three and two of the best director nominees at the Golden Globes and Oscars respectively were women, two of which are women of color. Chloe Zhao made history at the Golden Globes and Oscars by being the first Asian woman and second woman ever to win Best Director, Steven Yeun was the first Asian-American man to be nominated in the Best Actor category at the Oscars, and Yuh-Jung Youn being the first Korean woman and the first Asian woman since 1957 to win Best Supporting Actress.

But while these milestones should be celebrated, they are arriving far too late. And while Asian-American storytellers and performers are finally being recognized, stereotypes, slurs, cultural appropriation, and tokenizing are still very apparent in films and shows being produced even now. No amount of diversity quotas or hollow representation will solve this. Media clearly has such an important role in perpetuating prejudice and stereotypes in society and in allowing people of all ages to feel seen. No one story or experience can be a monolith for an entire group of people, and we cannot continue to allow Hollywood to act like it is.

“Life is extremely circumstantial and people cannot be regarded as the same when the fact of the matter is that all people are fundamentally different,” A-Rahim said. “We need to see a wider range of Black people, mixed Black people, mixed Asian people, and their experience in America and around the world.”