Oscars: Will the Academy Reward 'Hustlers' and Other Films About Economic Disparity?

ONE TIME USE ONLY - Wealth Gap Wars  Dominate the Road to Oscar - Illustration by David Galletly - H 2019
Illustration by David Galletly

From 'Hustlers' to 'Knives Out' to 'Parasite,' the issue involving wealth-gap wars might just be too big, and too current, to ignore. But will voters embrace such a riven view of society?

In Hustlers, a gang of down-on-their-luck strippers, led by the luminous Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), con Wall Street fat cats out of their ill-gotten gains. In Todd Phillips' Joker, the alienated, disturbed Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), stripped of his job, dignity and mental health support, turns violently against the callous elite, embodied by billionaire Thomas Wayne. Rian Johnson's Knives Out uses the tools of the Agatha Christie murder mystery to explore a tale of American entitlement, contrasting the dysfunctional wealthy Thrombeys — one of whom murdered the family patriarch — with its decidedly less-well-off staff. And in Parasite, from South Korean director Bong Joon Ho, the destitute, basement-dwelling Kims strive to climb the social ladder by leeching off the fabulously monied Park clan.

Welcome to this year's Oscar season, where, as in a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren stump speech, issues of economic disparity are front and center. The widening gulf between the haves and have-nots — and how income inequality warps people and society — is at the heart of many of the top contenders for the 2020 Academy Awards.

These aren't partisan political polemics. Knives Out serves up plenty of red and blue meat, with Johnson's one-liners targeting both MAGA supporters and liberal snowflakes. The parasite in Bong's title could apply equally to the poor Kims, conning the wealthy Parks, and to the Parks, who exploit the Kims for their labor. Even Hustlers director Lorene Scafaria finds some sympathy for her sleazeball stockbrokers, who end up drugged and ripped off, just for the crime of having a high-limit platinum card.

But while these films have little else to connect them — Hustlers is a Goodfellas-style crime tale with a feminist twist, Knives Out a tongue-in-cheek whodunit, Parasite a comedy-horror genre mashup — they all share a critique of current-day capitalism.

In itself, social commentary is nothing new for an awards race. Recent best picture winners leveraged themes of institutional racism (Green Book), gender and sexual discrimination (The Shape of Water), and gay and black identity (Moonlight) to land Oscar glory.

But among Academy voters, economic injustice can be a tougher sell. Boots Riley's capitalist satire Sorry to Bother You picked up an Independent Spirit Award in February for best first feature but was shut out of the Oscar race. Jordan Peele's Us, in which an upper-class black family is terrorized by their poor, evil doppelgangers, has been as critically and commercially successful as his debut, Get Out — both films have earned $255 million-plus worldwide — but has generated little awards buzz. The Academy, it would seem, finds attacks on racial injustice easier to take than those of the economic variety. It's notable that Ken Loach, the acclaimed British filmmaker who has put social inequality at the center of a 50-year career, has never been nominated for an Oscar. His latest, Sorry We Missed You, a cutting takedown of the gig economy, is not even in the awards conversation.

Even in Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, which won three Oscars, issues of economic disparity and workers' rights took a back seat to broader themes of social upheaval in 1970s Mexico. Academy voters loved 2008 best picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, but it was a rags-to-riches story of the kind Hollywood was built on, and one to celebrate.

In contrast, this new crop of contenders doesn't view income disparity as an individual challenge to be overcome but as something endemic to the system — from which there is no escape. As Ramona says in Hustlers: "The whole country is a strip club. Some people are throwing the money and some people are doing the dance." The cruelest twist in Parasite comes in the final reel, where the son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), after seeing his family literally sacrificed on the altar of capitalism, inoculates himself by wholeheartedly embracing the free market economy: "I made a plan. A fundamental plan. I'm going to earn money, a lot of it."

In these tales of class warfare, there are no real winners. And few happy endings. Only Johnson's Knives Out, which the director keeps light and breezy throughout, manages to tie up its loose ends in a tidy bow. When the revolution occurs — as it does in Joker, when Arthur Fleck's fans rise up to punish the one percent — the result is bloody chaos. It's a similar story in Les Misérables, the French drama from director Ladj Ly that is a strong contender in the international feature category. The poor of the Parisian banlieue revolt, only to see their neighborhood burn.

Joe Talbot doesn't go that far with The Last Black Man in San Francisco, his look at the impact of gentrification and rising house prices on the working-class residents of the City by the Bay. But even that A24 drama ends not with the bang of revolution but with a gentle whimper of resignation, as friends Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) are forced to accept that the economy has left their kind behind.

"It's one of the big questions of the age," Bong told The Hollywood Reporter, noting how filmmakers worldwide are being drawn to stories of inequality. "It just shows how universal this theme, or problem, really is in these times that we are now living through."

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.