Parasite’s Victory Means It’s Time to Take the Oscars Seriously

We can stop wondering if the academy will ever change. It’s happened.

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho poses in the press room with his trophies.
Parasite writer-director Bong Joon-ho, with some of his Oscars. FREDERIC J. BROWN/Getty Images

I guess after the peach poisoning, the husband in the basement, the stabbings, the Morse code—after all that, we should have expected that Parasite had one more surprise up its sleeve. The year’s twistiest movie shocked the Oscars Sunday night, becoming the first non–English-language film ever to win Best Picture. “I’m ready to drink ,” Bong Joon-ho said after winning Best International Film, but happily for him he had a lot more work to do: first a victory in Best Director, during which he gave possibly the speech of the night. And then, amazingly, the biggest award—despite every precursor pointing the way to a win for 1917.

In the lead-up to these Oscars, I thought a lot about what a win for 1917 would mean about the progress the academy has made in the years since #OscarsSoWhite led to an evolution in the institution’s membership. If not as enraging as, say, Green Book’s victory, a win for 1917 still would have felt like a bummer, a sign that an influx of hundreds of younger and more international artists had not yet transformed an institution that’s been historically slow to evolve. After all, movies like 1917 have been winning Oscars as long as there have been Academy Awards. Since the very first Oscars, when 1927’s Wings won, the academy has loved to give Best Picture to a big, technically adept historical epic—especially a war movie. (Like 1917, Wings is a story of World War I, lauded for its technical wizardry.) It happened with The Life of Emile Zola in 1938, The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1958, Ben-Hur in 1960, Patton in 1971. The 1990s were the apotheosis of this habit, as Dances With Wolves, Schindler’s List, Braveheart, and The English Patient all won Best Picture, followed by Gladiator in 2001. Some of these movies were very good and some were very bad, but they all represented big, expensive, middlebrow swings at war drama, rewarded by an academy that sniffed at portrayals of modern life and hungered for history.

I thought less about what a Parasite victory would mean, because (forgive me, Director Bong) I still didn’t believe it was possible. Not against a movie that seemed so Oscar-y. But it’s time to throw away our ideas of what an “Oscar movie” is. What’s remarkable about Parasite’s victory isn’t only that a cast and crew of Koreans stood on stage at evening’s end, giving the hardworking translator Sharon Choi the night of her life. It’s that the academy had a choice between a big, square war epic and a thoroughly contemporary movie speaking directly to the inequalities of our time—and they let the right one in.

Many Oscar lovers wondered if Moonlights victory three years ago presaged a new era in the awards, an era of artistically ambitious, diverse, of-the-moment movies finally going rewarded in a way we’d spent our whole lives assuming the academy would never do. The triumph of Parasite makes it official: That new era has arrived. The awards still have a long way to go on issues of representation. (Perhaps the next international film to win Best Picture won’t see all its actors ignored, for example.) And no doubt the Oscars will give retrogressive awards again—maybe as soon as next year, if they give Best Picture to Hillbilly Elegy over, say, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.

Yet the Oscars can no longer be written off as out of touch, artistically retrograde, and irrelevant. More times than not over the past seven years, they’ve given Best Picture to a legitimately very good movie, and in several cases the award went to the least traditionally Oscar-y contender. Viewed in the context not only of Moonlight but of 12 Years a Slave, Spotlight, even (for all its faults) Birdman, Parasite’s victory isn’t a fluke or a surprise; it confirms a trend. It’s time to take the Oscars seriously.

Read more in Slate about the Oscars.