Oscars 2023: CU film professor discusses diverse representation and systemic inequities

Original article published on the CU Independent here.

Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz poses for the premiere of “West Side Story” at El Capitán Theatre in Hollywood in Los Angeles, Calif. (Courtesy of Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz)

Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz, the chair of cinema studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, says Hollywood still has a long way to go in order to become more inclusive of BIPOC filmmakers and actors, despite the improvements since the #OscarsSoWhite movement in 2015.

This year’s Oscar nominations have been hailed as a major step forward for Asian and Asian American representation in Hollywood, with “Everything Everywhere All At Once” receiving 11 nominations. Four AAPI actors — Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu and Hong Chau (“The Whale”) — secured nominations for acting awards, the most ever recognized in a single year. 

On the other hand, Black and Latino filmmakers and actors have seen far less representation this year. Some have even called the nominations list “The Oscars So White 2.” All five nominations for best actor are white men, as well as five of the six best director nominees. No Black women or men received nominations for the best actress, actor or director categories. 

“The balance is always going to be in favor of white performers and directors,” Acevedo-Muñoz said. “The majority of Academy members who vote for nominations and winners are still mostly white men.”

Latino representations in Hollywood

Acevedo-Muñoz, who specializes in Latin American and Spanish cultures and cinema and Hollywood genres, has advocated for improving Latino representation in the film industry for years. 

His 2013 book, “West Side Story as Cinema: The Making and Impact of an American Masterpiece,” features a discussion of how the film portrays racist stereotypes of Puerto Ricans and their culture.

Recently, Acevedo-Muñoz served on a community advisory board that provided guidance on racial and cultural issues for Steven Spielberg’s 2021 film adaptation of “West Side Story.” Last year, the film received six Oscar nominations, and queer Afro-Latina Ariana DeBose won the award for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Anita.

This year, the Academy has nominated few Latino people for the primary acting and filmmaking categories. Cuban-born Ana de Armas, the only Latina woman nominated for best actress, ironically has been recognized for her portrayal of a white woman — Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde.”

No Latino men appear in the best actor, supporting actor or best director lists, though several other Latino-led films appear in other categories, such as Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio” for best animated featureandSantiago Mitre’s “Argentina, 1985″ for best international feature film.

Black actors and creators excluded in 2023 nominations

Black people have likewise been edged out of the nominations list with only two supporting actor and actress nominations, Bryan Tyree Henry (“Causeway”) and Angela Bassett (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”).

The list excluded several critically acclaimed films by and about Black people, including Chinonye Chukwu’s biographical drama “Till” and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s historical epic “The Woman King” (both of which CU Boulder’s International Film Series screened for Black History Month this February). Although “Wakanda Forever” has five nominations, including best original song for Rihanna’s “Lift Me Up,” it didn’t make the cut for the best picture nomination. 

“The fact that there is not a single Black woman nominated for best female actress in a leading role is inexplicable,” Acevedo-Muñoz said.

Diversifying the white male-dominated Academy 

To address the #OscarsSoWhite movement in 2015, the Academy has attempted to diversify the voting body by increasing membership, part of its A2020 initiative. Over the past 10 years, the membership has increased by 65% to 10,000 people, approximately 9,500 of which are eligible to vote.

Though the Academy has included more female, BIPOC and international filmmakers in recent years, the voting body remains 66% male and 81% whiteSeventy-four percent of the members reside in California. 

Despite these recent diversity initiatives, Acevedo-Muñoz believes the Academy still has not done enough to address the systemic inequity of its membership selection process. He said it still relies on an invitation-only system and requires sponsorship by at least two current members, which encourages exclusivity.

“They have taken action but not really in a proactive way,” he said. 

In addition, changing the demographics of such a large institution solely by expanding membership doesn’t address the existing inequities and results in a very slow demographic shift toward equitable minority representation. 

Nominations as diversity tokenization

Even if more BIPOC-led films receive nominations due to the Academy’s new diversity standards, they often have a smaller chance of taking home major awards than their mainstream white-led counterparts, given the biases of the Academy members. Thus, the nominations can act as tokens of diversity, rather than indications of true reform.

Take for example the controversial shutout of the “Color Purple” at the 1986 Oscars, where it failed to win any of its 11 nominations. In 2022, the biographical sports film “King Richard,” directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, only won one of the five nominations — Will Smith for best actor — and lost out on the best picture award to the white-led “CODA” with historic representations of the deaf community. 

“The nomination itself is sometimes more of a token gesture than a genuine chance of opening up the competition,” Acevedo-Muñoz said. 

In addition, the Hollywood-centric mentality contributes to a lack of diverse BIPOC representation beyond the U.S. The international feature film category virtually excludes non-American and non-European foreign language films from the more prestigious categories — though the South Korean film “Parasite” finally disrupted this status quo with the best film win in 2020. 

“The Academy’s separate category for international films is not practical or useful,” Acevedo-Muñoz said. “We’re already ghettoizing certain films in favor of the Hollywood industry, which is viewed as ‘real cinema.’” 

Visibility and representation at this year’s Oscars

Ahead of this year’s award show on Sunday, March 12, AAPI actors and filmmakers for “Everything Everywhere All At Once” are set up for sweeping — and potentially historic — wins. If Michelle Yeoh wins the award for best actress, she will be the second AAPI actress to be nominated for an Oscar and the first ever to win. 

“Michelle Yeoh is magnificent and more than deserving,” Acevedo-Muñoz said. “She carries that entire movie. She is in every scene in a movie that’s two hours and 20 minutes long. That’s a tremendous achievement. I hope she wins.” 

Though the Oscars have seen decreasing viewership in recent years, Acevedo-Muñoz believes their role as a major cultural institution still has a huge impact on the film industry and audiences. Thus, representation and visibility for BIPOC communities at the Oscars are still as important as ever. 

“We need to democratize membership into the Academy in ways that are not controlled by a small group of people,” he said. “As long as the demographics of Academy membership remain as they are, it will be hard to open those doors more broadly to [diverse films].”

The IFS will be screening several Oscar-nominated films in the coming months. The Oscar-nominated animatedlive-action and documentary shorts will be shown March 10-12. The Oscar-nominated “Triangle of Sadness” will be next on Thursday, March 16. “The Whale,” nominated for three Oscars, will be screened on May 1.  Check the full film schedule on the IFS’ website here

The 95th Academy Awards show will take place at 6 p.m. MST on Sunday, March 12. 

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