Historic 'Parasite' Win Caps an Oscars Show Dedicated to Inclusion

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The cast and filmmakers behind 'Parasite'

The awards ceremony featured plenty of diverse stars and surprises.

As the Oscars ushered in yet another year of mostly white male nominees, a series of surprise wins on Sunday helped to redefine the narrative of the Academy as South Korean thriller Parasite took home four statuettes, including the top accolades for best picture and director on a night where inclusion was at the core of the show.

Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite was the upset in key categories, winning the stacked best director category as well as honors for original screenplay and the newly named best international feature film. “I’m so happy to be the first recipient under the new name. I applaud and support the new direction that this change symbolizes,” the filmmaker said onstage. 

In the 92-year history of the Academy Awards, Parasite became the first foreign-language film to win best picture, an astounding achievement for a $11 million Korean-language theatrical effort that grew through word-of-mouth since its Palme d'Or win at the Cannes Film Festival in May (it has grossed over $167 million worldwide to date).

It is rare for a film to win best picture honors without any individual acting nominations, but after Parasite won the best ensemble prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards last month, its chances looked a little brighter. Still, it was Sam Mendes' World War I drama 1917 that went into Sunday as the presumptive favorite in the best picture and directing categories.

Backstage after winning his Oscar, Bong said, “I think naturally there will come a day when a foreign-language film or not, it won’t really matter.”

The Oscars came under fire in 2016 when all 20 of its acting nominees were white for two consecutive years, forcing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to pledge to double its female and minority memberships by this year. While the Academy is close to meeting its goals, a recent Hollywood Reporter study revealed that 84 percent of the organization is white

This year, the Oscars came dangerously close to repeating #OscarsSoWhite when Harriet lead Cynthia Erivo was the only actor of color nominated across the four acting categories. 

It was no mistake that first-time Oscar producers Lynette Howell Taylor and Stephanie Allain kicked the show off with Janelle Monae singing a lively Mister Rogers-style musical number that quickly became an opportunity to showcase diverse talent, including Billy Porter. “It’s time to come alive / Because the Oscars is so white,” she sang, surrounded by black dancers dressed as characters from Joker, Dolemite Is My Name, Little Women, Midsommar and Us.

"Tonight we celebrate all the amazing talent in this room," Monae said during her performance. "We celebrate all the women who directed phenomenal films. And I'm so proud to stand here as a black queer artist telling stories. Happy Black History Month!" 

From there, Chris Rock and Steve Martin picked up the mantle to make more pointed barbs about the lack of female directors and diverse acting nominees. “Cynthia [Erivo] did such a great job in Harriet hiding black people that the Academy got her to hide all the black nominees! Cynthia, is Eddie Murphy under this stage?” Rock quipped. Martin continued: “Back in 1929, there were no black acting nominees,” to which Rock replied, “And now in 2020, we got one!”

And yet Sunday saw some key diverse wins. New Zealand's Taika Waititi became the first indigenous filmmaker to win an Oscar, picking up best adapted screenplay honors for his Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit

“This is dedicated to all the indigenous kids around the world that want to do art, dance and write stories. We are the original storytellers, and we can make it up here as well,” Waititi said onstage.

Director Matthew A. Cherry, whose Hair Love (a story of a black father learning to do his daughter’s hair) won the animated short film Oscar, said the film was “done because we wanted to see more representation in animation and to normalize black hair.” He added a remark about the important of making the Crown Act, which bans discrimination against black students and employees with natural hairstyles, legal across the nation (California became the first state to adopt it last year).

Presenters invited onstage on Sunday night included talent of color such as Mindy Kaling, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Oscar Isaac, Salma Hayek, Penelope Cruz, Kelly Marie Tran and Anthony Ramos. Erivo also performed her Oscar-nominated song from Harriet.

Actor and singer Utkarsh Ambudkar, who was in Broadway’s Freestyle Love Supreme show and appears in the upcoming Mulan, also rapped about inclusion onstage as he came on halfway to recap the show and mention Parasite and Waititi’s wins: “Been a long time, trying to be color blind / What you see right in front of you is a sign of the times.” 

Todd Phillips' DC antihero drama Joker, which led all nominees with 11, earned two wins: Joaquin Phoenix for best actor and Hildur Gudnadottir for best original score. 

Martin Scorsese's mob epic The Irishman, Quentin Tarantino's nostalgic Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Mendes' 1917 tied for 10 noms, including for best picture, where they were bested by Parasite. The Irishman went home empty-handed, while 1917 won three Oscars and Once Upon a Time nabbed two. 

Women were notably missing from most of the categories, specifically in directing, where filmmakers such as The Farewell's Lulu Wang, Honey Boy's Alma Har'el and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood's Marielle Heller were all snubbed. 

Mark Ruffalo made a point to mention while presenting the documentary feature category that four of the nominated films featured female directors or co-directors. Natalie Portman, who called out the “all-male nominees” at the Golden Globes two years ago, also made a subtle statement by wearing a cape embroidered with the names of 2019’s female directors.

“All women are superheroes,” Sigourney Weaver said as she was flanked by Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot and Captain Marvel’s Brie Larson as they introduced the musical presentation for original score, which was led by a female conductor for the first time.

Gudnadottir became the first solo female to win in the original score category for Joker, and said: "To the girls, to the women, to the mothers, to the daughters who hear the music opening within, please speak up. We need to hear your voices."