Parasite’s Oscar Wins Were a Landmark, but the Academy Is Still at War With Itself

Bong Joon-ho poses in the press room, holding up two Oscar statuettes.
Bong Joon-ho and two of his Oscars. Rachel Luna/Getty Images

The Academy Awards have a history of overlooking worthy films as long and gloried as a bedazzled red carpet stretching endlessly toward the horizon. It has on occasion gotten things right, though rarely has it gotten things as right as it got them at the end of the 92nd Oscars, when Bong Joon-ho’s impeccable Parasite became the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture, having already won Best International Film, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Parasite’s victory was somewhat surprising—Sam Mendes’ World War I picture 1917 had been the front-runner—and one way to understand the oddball show that preceded Bong’s multiple victories is as a kind of reflexive defense against Parasite’s possible loss. The Oscars spent the night trying to make up for the fact that it still has the kind of voting body that doesn’t nominate people of color, recognize female directors, or select the best movie of the year to win Best Picture if that movie is South Korean—except then it went and did exactly that.

Though the Oscars purport to tell us about the value of a year’s worth of movies, they really tell us about the values of the voting members of the academy. Though this has long been the subtext of the Oscars, in the last four years—not at all coincidentally, the Trump years—it has simply become text, particularly plain to read in the Best Picture category. Since 2017, the Best Picture contest has featured either a film that is widely understood in the press and on Twitter to be an actually good movie that embodies progress, diversity, and a challenge to the status quo or one that is widely understood in the press and on Twitter to be a cheesy, possibly even racist film that represents false, easy comforts, Hollywood narcissism, and the status quo. Every year one of these films has been pitted against another film that does not quite so vividly inhabit either category, and the outcome of this duel isn’t really just about Best Picture. It’s about the direction of the academy and movie culture more generally.

In 2017, coming off the #OscarsSoWhite protest of 2016, Barry Jenkins’ moving, delicate Moonlight dramatically beat out the Hollywood-myopic La La Land (which probably wasn’t quite as annoying as it seemed to be at the time). Moonlight is a movie directed by a black man, written by a black man, and about a black man, and its victory seemed to augur a whole new future for the Academy: one that wasn’t just woker, but simply better, willing to give its highest honor to a great, aching, indie movie that totally deserved it over a musical celebrating Hollywood. The year following, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, a monster love story that was also about the dangers of bigotry, won; it wasn’t exactly a radical choice, but at least it fended off the arguably racist Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Then last year, the definitely racist, paternalistic, and condescending Driving Miss Daisy retread Green Book did win Best Picture.* All of which set up this year, in which Parasite found itself seemingly lagging behind 1917, the kind of war film the academy has, historically, loved to honor.

The producers of this year’s Academy Awards show, which was once again hostless, were extremely aware of the fuddy-duddy possibilities created by its own voting body, the one that didn’t recognize any female directors in the director category; that nominated only one woman of color, Cynthia Erivo*, in all of the acting categories (to say nothing of so many of the others). And these same producers were going to do what they could to counteract that. The show began with a performance from Janelle Monáe, who told the crowd, “Tonight we celebrate all the amazing talent. We celebrate all the women who directed phenomenal films. I’m so glad to stand here as a black queer artist. Happy Black History Month.” The nominations themselves were not at all a celebration of female directors, black artists, or queer artists, but the show was going to turn it into one even so.

The diversity that was missing in the nominations was on the stage, in the presenters and in the presenters presenting the presenters. Chris Rock and Steve Martin came on right after Monáe and did a bit about what was missing from the Best Director category: “vaginas.” Rock joked that Erivo, who played Harriet Tubman in the biopic Harriet, “did such a good job in Harriet hiding black people, that they got her to hide all the black nominees.” While presenting Best Documentary, Mark Ruffalo took a moment to note that four of the five nominees had female directors, to a round of pointed applause. Throughout the evening, relatively up-and-coming actors, many of them of color—Zazie Beetz, Kelly Marie Tran, Anthony Ramos—were used to introduce the other, more famous actors who would then introduce the awards. Questlove DJed. Halfway through, the actor Utkarsh Ambudkar rapped about how white the whole show was.

The Oscars’ self-awareness about their lack of diversity is preferable to the alternative—blithe unselfconsciousness, active defensiveness—because, among other things, it makes for a diverse show, if not a hugely diverse slate of winners. But that doesn’t mean the self-critique isn’t also a self-interested attempt to insulate itself from criticism by performing wokeness. At times, this veered into self-satire, as when the audience was prompted to applaud that, for the first time in the awards’ 92-year history, a woman was conducting the orchestra at the Oscars—for one song. Better late than never, and the conductor was wearing a striking, gold, elfin outfit, but that’s a little like wanting credit for successfully doing your own laundry as an adult: What took you so long? Even more condescending was having presenters Sigourney Weaver, Brie Larson, and Gal Gadot proclaim that “all women are superheroes” on the same night that an actor playing a broken supervillain won Best Actor. When do women get to stop being superheroes and just get to have really interesting parts?

The best aspects of the night were divorced from this kind of virtue signaling. Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig’s wonderful patter and Erivo’s* incredible voice were so good not because they’re superheroes, but because they’re super talented. Better in a totally different way was Eminem’s surprise performance of “Lose Yourself,” which raised the “what is happening??” quotient so high we got a whole reaction GIF collection out of it. Unscripted reactions, like Diane Ladd’s face during her daughter Laura Dern’s acceptance speech, or even Brad Pitt’s “Once upon a time in Hollywood, ain’t that the truth?” are the whole point of the Oscars, even when the unscripted stuff gets strange, as it did when Joaquin Phoenix pivoted from sexism and racism to milk, or when Renée Zellweger got lost in all the time she had up on stage.

Without a host and with so many musical performances, the show felt different than usual, a little less grueling, but also a little weirder. The defensiveness about the show’s lack of diversity became odder as the awards began to tell a different, less retrograde story. The Oscars were distributed to a lot of movies (all the Best Picture nominees except The Irishman won something), and that was as had been expected. It was only when Bong won Best Director that it seemed like Parasite might take it all. Through a translator, Bong spoke movingly about exactly the thing that the Academy Awards constantly, self-aggrandizingly say about the movies—that they reach people—by talking specifically about how they reached him. It inspired, in the middle of his victory, a standing ovation for another director, Martin Scorsese, and elegantly demonstrated the ways that movies do travel far beyond the confines of any one country or any one language. In saying what movies did for him, how Scorsese’s films influenced him, which influenced Tarantino, and all the way around again, he was saying what the awards had been trying to say all night, but without the anxiety: that movies matter, they are connected, and they can come from anywhere and anyone. Thanks to him, for the night anyway, the future of the Oscars was already here.

Read more in Slate about the Oscars.

Correction, Feb. 10, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Cynthia Erivo’s last name. It also misidentified Driving Miss Daisy as Driving Mrs. Daisy.