One Small, Easy Way to Make the Oscars More Inclusive

Not everyone can overcome the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles.” The Academy can help.

Bong and Han hold their statuettes aloft as Choi stands nearby.
Parasite screenwriters Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won accept their Oscars with interpreter Sharon Choi. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced last week that it will create a new set of “representation and inclusion standards” for potential Oscar nominees. Starting next year, movies will have to meet certain criteria—to be determined by a task force assembled by Academy President David Rubin—if they want to be eligible for Hollywood’s most prestigious prize.

This is just the latest attempt of many by the Academy over the years to fix the Oscars’ reputation for being #SoWhite, and the results have been mixed. When Parasite became the first non-English-language film ever to win Best Picture, its victory was a sign of progress, an indication that American audiences are ready to overcome what director Bong Joon-ho called the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles.” But somehow that phrase, a symbol of Hollywood’s unwillingness to recognize cinema from other cultures, has morphed into a much more literal “subs vs. dubs” debate. When Trump complained that a movie from South Korea had won the Oscar, Parasite’s North American distributor, Neon, responded to the president’s xenophobia by calling him illiterate: “Understandable, he can’t read.” Hulu had a similarly snarky remark for a Twitter user who complained. “If you don’t want to read subtitles, you can always learn Korean!” the company wrote.

While some of these complaints are indeed just whining, there’s a significant portion of the population who can’t read Parasite’s subtitles, and it’s not because they’re intolerant or lazy. For many blind and visually impaired moviegoers, that “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” might as well be a mile high. Ordinarily, there’d be a simple fix to make the movie more accessible: audio description, which provides additional narration to explain what’s happening on screen for people who can’t see. In the case of subtitled movies, that includes reading the translated dialogue aloud. But Parasite premiered in theaters in the U.S. without an audio description track last year, and even nine months later, there’s still no audio description available here, either on streaming services or on home video. Parasite was the only Best Picture nominee in its class not to have audio description.

That would be a regrettable omission for any movie in 2019, but it’s especially troubling for one that is so culturally significant and whose dialogue is entirely subtitled, because blind non-Korean speakers are being denied the translation offered to their sighted counterparts. It’s not just blind audiences at a disadvantage, either. People with dyslexia, ADHD, or any number of learning or developmental disabilities that affect a person’s ability to read quickly could have greatly benefited from audio description. Commissioning the track usually falls to the movie’s distributor, which can vary by region—there is an English-language audio description track available in the U.K., for example—making Neon’s joke about the president’s inability to read all the more cringeworthy. Diversity and inclusion in Hollywood aren’t just about the people on screen or behind the scenes, though there’s still a great deal of work to be done in both areas. It also means tearing down barriers for audiences, too. And you can stand up for one marginalized group without publicly stepping on another.

As it determines its new eligibility standards, the Academy is in a rare position to make sure that awards contenders, at least, meet the bare minimum for accessibility. In fact, Dan Spoone, president of the American Council of the Blind, has made it easy for them. In a letter to Rubin earlier this year (PDF), he detailed some steps the Academy can take, offering his own organization’s assistance. “ACB believes that it is time for the Academy to step up and take a leadership role to ensure that all nominations for Best Picture in the future must demonstrate that they have captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing, and audio description for people who are blind or visually impaired,” he wrote. Spoone also proposed that the Academy make its museum more accessible, called for audio description to receive awards recognition in the technical categories, and suggested an initiative to add audio description to older titles. It should start with a movie everyone deserves to experience: Parasite.