From the New York Times:
The Academy Awards have made mistakes before, our critic writes. But this year’s crop of best-picture nominees may be the breaking point.
Best-picture nominees this year include… “1917”; “Ford v Ferrari”; “Jojo Rabbit”; “Joker”; “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”; “The Irishman”; and “Marriage Story.”
Plus, “Little Women,” which was ho-hum.
By Wesley Morris
Published Feb. 4, 2020
If something’s not right with the Oscars, what about them is most wrong? The joylessly algebraic nomination process? All those old white voters? That we seriously call September to February awards season, like it’s weather or the flu? Whatever it is, we’re looking at nine best-picture nominees and 19 actors that have got a lot of people rolling their eyes — people like me. And I’m not an eye-roller about these things. I love the Academy Awards.
Why the hell am I like this?
Because you are gay? The Academy Awards are like the Big Gay Super Bowl, so they’ve finally taken my advice and rather than schedule them long after anybody could remember the end-of year releases, they moved the ceremony up in the year to the Sunday after Super Bowl Sunday.
This year the X-ray feels like it was removed from a time capsule. And a little Oscar radiology reveals that eight of the nine movies (minus “Parasite”) are about white people — and, excusing “Little Women,” and Scarlett Johansson in “Marriage Story” notwithstanding, about white men. “Little Women” is the lone nominee that a woman directed.
And rather poorly.
Now here’s an amusing admission from Morris: the White Male nominee movies are pretty good this year, better than the competition:
Why’s race such a factor now? Well, for one thing, when it comes to the Oscars, there is some accounting for taste. And this year, the problem isn’t with the particular remaining movies — “1917,” “Ford v Ferrari,” “The Irishman,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “Joker” and “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” — or the white people in them. Not since my wish list and Walkman days, have I despised so few nominees in this category. Most of them I love. As for the one failure, I’ve never worked harder to get with the program. But after four tries, I gave up. This Joker, quite often literally, has no clothes.
Joker is the first billion dollar art house drama in movie history. It’s not for everybody but clearly it’s for a lot of people.
Assembled, these distinct movies become a representative entity, and a person like me notices a theme that could poke out an eye. And whiteness is part of that story. It’s always been, of course. But this year feels different. A homogeneity has set in. The nominated movies start to look like picture day at certain magnet schools. “Jojo Rabbit” is a Hitler Youth comedy! Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time …” is a dream about the accidentally heroic pre-emption of racist Charles Manson’s murder plot. And “Little Women” quietly dramatizes the freedom white women experience after the men have left to fight a war; a war to end the enslavement of black people. Sounds a little too ironic, and yet the movie means us to understand the irony. Those white ladies are better off than any black people. They’re just not equal to the women’s enlisted brothers, fathers and beaus.
Uh, aren’t the white women at home in Concord, Massachusetts better off than the white men fighting and dying in the Civil War?
The border between their time and ours has a gusty permeability.
Some of what’s so strong about “The Irishman” and “Once Upon a Time …” comes from how remembered they both feel — rue-soaked in the first movie; heavy with “what if” in the other. At the movies (in the West), the convenient thing about the past is that you can solve the matter of race by pretending it doesn’t exist. Most of these movies, in addition to their thematic rearview, are based in actual history. (“1917” sends two British World War I soldiers on a critical, thrillingly stressful postal mission.) You can’t put nonwhite people in places they weren’t — and when a movie does, you get something mildly anarchic like a biracial Jewish New Zealander having a ball playing Hitler.
Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time …” has a great line; as they wait for their car, Brad Pitt tells a weepy Leonardo DiCaprio, “Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans.” Their white American maleness is too mythic and valuable to go around blubbering all over valets. “Joker” is about a comedian, but it doesn’t have Tarantino’s sense of humor about its whiteness. Whiteness here is a tragic, symbolic condition. …
Couldn’t these nine movies just be evidence of taste? Good taste? They certainly could. They are. And yet, after the hash tags and threatened boycotts, after “Hidden Figures,” “Get Out” and “Black Panther” and “BlacKkKlansman”; after “Moonlight” winning over “La La Land”; after no woman being a two-time directing nominee; after the touted diversification campaigns and calls for “inclusion riders” (calls in acceptance speeches!); and in the same year that a popular Latina surprisingly missed the cut and the only black acting nominee is playing a plantation escapee (albeit one of history’s most famous escapees, but still) — the assembly of these movies feels like a body’s allergic reaction to its own efforts at rehabilitation.
In other words, it’s almost as if the most talented figures in the movie business, most of whom are white men such as Quentin Tarantino, have tended to react to The Great Awokening by moving in the opposite direction.
Only two of the nine movies are set in what we’d called the present moment; and one of those (“Parasite”) comes to us from Seoul. Which means, the other seven — six of which are set in the United States — take place in the past. … Out with the new, in with the ancient!
Maybe this is just bad luck. I mean, what could the Academy have done to prevent itself from duplicating schisms beyond the movie theater? National schisms. (Nationalist schisms.) According to all the forecasting, these were the nine most predicted nominees. There’s no shafted movie by or about nonwhite people, despite certain passions for “The Farewell” and “Hustlers” or even mine for “Waves.” …
I can look at these otherwise innocent movies, gathered together, and surmise progress fatigue: We already did that. If Joaquin Phoenix wins the best actor Oscar for “Joker,” he’s likely to remind his fellow industry professionals, as he did last Sunday at the BAFTAs, that their tiredness is not an option, that it’s an embarrassment.
Phoenix’s BAFTA award speech summarized: I got mine! Now, voters, start discriminating harder against younger guys who look like me.
That fatigue starts to mirror life everywhere else, as it used to be and sometimes as it remains. Separate, unequal: You’ve put enough nonwhite people in pop hits that you have to think alternatively. So when the so-called awards season heats up, you can’t find anything serious, nonwhite and good. So come nomination morn, the Oscars suddenly look like evidence of white flight, this reliable suburb of “quality” and “taste” and eligibility. …
Wesley Morris is a critic-at-large. He was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his criticism while at the Boston Globe. He has also worked at Grantland, The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner. @wesley_morris