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Parasite at the Oscars: Two Years Later After its Historic Win

By Sarah Druhan


Photo: The New Yorker – Source


In the heart of awards season, it’s difficult not to reflect on the different events and victories of years past. From the famous mangling of the Best Picture hand-off in 2016 to John Travolta’s fascinating mispronunciation of ‘Idina Menzel’ in 2014, the Academy Awards in particular have certainly garnered their fair share of controversy. While the shock and notoriety of these two moments have increasingly faded in the public eye in time, there are certain serious issues—namely, the questionable levels of diversity in each year’s Oscar nominees—that seem to continually plague the Academy season after season.


When April Reign’s viral campaign #OscarsSoWhite first began trending in 2015, the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was 92% white and 75% male. The 2015 Oscar nominees had just been announced, and all twenty nominations in the acting category had gone to white actors. The world-changing hashtag exposed many largely undiscussed problems in the Oscars nomination process. The definitions of categories like “Best Director” and “Best Picture” were all undeniably strained through a majority white male lens, and, since the Academy members weren’t even required to watch the nominated films before voting, it seemed that the organization’s decisions could too easily be swayed by members’ initial impressions of films that appealed to them and their lifestyle. Since the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, only seven women have ever received nominations for Best Director, and only two have ever taken home the title. Likewise, a mere twelve foreign language films have ever been nominated for Best Picture, the majority of them originating from European studios.


The increasing frustrations of these unaddressed issues seemed to come to a head when the 2019 Oscar for Best Picture was awarded to the controversial Green Book, a film that viewers were stunned to see beat out Spike Lee’s acclaimed BlacKkKlansman and Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning Spanish-language film Roma. Green Book did not receive near the amount of professional praise awarded to BlacKkKlansman or Roma, and its plot about the dynamic between a black pianist and his white chauffeur generated backlash for catering to a white audience’s palate and for its ultimate failure to truly discuss any racial history or inequalities. As a stage of mostly white filmmakers accepted the Oscar for a movie about race relations, the night came to a lackluster end on an undeniably awkward note. It was clear that the Academy had not absorbed the years of justified criticism against it, and had chosen to embrace tradition even further rather than pushing the boundaries of the outdated selection process. There were many who gave up on ever expecting anything more from the annual awards show. With this knowledge in mind, the victories of Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite during the 2020 Oscars came as an unexpected, but almost exhilarating, surprise. A mere year after the Green Book win, viewers watched in shock as Parasite not only scooped up Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Director, but also beat out frontrunner 1917 for the honor of 2020 Best Picture.


While Parasite’s innovation and universal acclaim had quickly made it a favorite, it was undeniably a change in Oscar pattern for one film to dominate these four huge categories and unheard of for it to be a foreign-language film, one from a non-American or non-European studio at that. Additionally, the film was the only one out of all 2020 Best Picture nominees to not feature a white-dominated cast. The immensity of the moment was not lost on Oscar audiences—the announcement received a standing ovation, and when stage lights began to dim before speeches were over the front rows immediately began chanting for the recipients to have the chance to finish. The energy of the night’s closing moments felt infinitely more tangible than the year before as the same realization swept the Parasite crew and Oscar viewers: the winner had been an unanticipated nominee that really and truly deserved the term ‘Best Picture’.


This win was not only a particularly rousing moment in Oscar history, but an unexpected and momentous one. Parasite’s victories defied all previous patterns of how Oscar winners had always been chosen; whether intentional or not, the Academy’s recognition of Parasite opened up their previous limited definitions of what made a film truly great, and laid exciting new ground for more diverse and quality filmmaking to emerge onto the scene. Parasite became the first foreign language film to win Best Picture, breaking down barriers and thus paving the way for others to follow. The 2020 Oscars certainly speak to a ripple in the way things have always been done and possibly even to how the world’s protest against Green Book’s win may have demonstrated to the organization that the definition of a true ‘Best Picture’ will not be on their restricted terms forever. In the end, the Academy is ultimately still a white and male dominated institution, and will likely continue its historic prioritization of films promoting both of these categories. But, unforeseen triumphs like Parasite offer a glimmer of hope for the future of diverse and global filmmaking, and could still give us a reason to turn on the TV during awards season.