At the 92nd Academy Awards, actress Jane Fonda dramatically paused briefly before announcing the Best Picture winner: “Parasite.” The announcement caused the audience to respond with excited cheers and a standing ovation. South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho walked to stage for the fourth time that night, shaking his head in disbelief.
I predicted that Sam Mendes’ “1917” would win, but for all intents and purposes, I’m glad that I was wrong. The win for “Parasite” — not only for Best Picture but for Best Director, Best International Feature and Best Original Screenplay — is a watershed moment for the representation of international films, as it is also the first film not in English to win Best Picture.
Since the movie’s win, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has offered his congratulations to Joon-Ho, the cast and the crew. In a tweet, Jae-in said “An amusing yet sad movie, ‘Parasite’ also conveys social messages in a novel, outstanding, and successful way. It reminds us of how touching and powerful a movie can be.”
That was Feb. 9, 2020. Let’s rewind the clock a bit.
Three years ago, the Dolby Theater was one lit match away from a conflagration on the night of the 89th Academy Awards as one misplaced card led to numerous apologies before the team of “La La Land” gave its Best Picture Oscar figurines over to the rightful winners: the team of “Moonlight.”
Like with “Parasite,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose an outlier — a film exploring a narrative that was different from a typical Hollywood one. It chose “Moonlight,” a rich identity drama about a black, gay man over “La La Land,” a pleasant musical about a white, heterosexual couple. The decision seemed to symbolize a choice between unconventionality and comfort.
And yet, the next year for the Academy’s 91st awards, the nominees were an onslaught of widely appealing films — “Black Panther,” “Vice,” “A Star is Born,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and, the winner, “Green Book.” Since then, us critics of the Academy have dismissed “Green Book” as kitsch, celebrating the white savior relationship that satisfies the Academy’s out-of-touch voters.
It seemed like the Academy returned to nominating lighter films with universal appeal to reconnect with viewers after declining ratings. The show’s ratings for the 90th awards in 2018 dropped, and viewership hit a record low of 26.5 million viewers. In the four years since the 2014 Oscars, viewership was diced approximately in half, signaling an internal alarm with the Academy.
Perhaps this was why it chose “Green Book,” a cursory biopic of black musical prodigy Don Shirley’s road tour of the Deep South, for the Best Picture win. The film was described as sterilization, which Carol Shirley Kimble, the niece of Don Shirley, acknowledged: “It’s once again a depiction of a white man’s version of a black man’s life,” she said.
Director Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” front-running competitor to “Green Book,” was not a common or cozy story. “Parasite” was not cozy either, but it was sharp, deft and moving at a break-neck pace. It had the crowd-pleasing appeal that the black and white film “Roma” did not.
If “Roma” had possessed this quality, Cuarón’s dejected, Mexico City-based drama might have been the first international feature in history to win Best Picture. But its loss to “Green Book” was considered a cheap move to appeal to Oscar voters and solidified the Academy’s unaltered, moderate status.
The win for “Parasite’s” win is similar to that of “Moonlight” and seems to be a rejection of films like “Green Book.” Perhaps it also showcased the celebration that could have happened if “Roma” won in 2019.
Most importantly, the film’s win opens a door to a new wave of validation and representation in Hollywood awards shows. But it doesn’t loosen a century of disregard for international films. Unfortunately, time will only tell whether or not the Academy is open to more films like “Parasite” — and giving them awards when credit is due.