This should be at least two separate posts cos I kept coming back and adding to it but fuck it…
I still can’t believe “Parasite” won Best Picture at The Oscars! And Director and Original Screenplay and International Feature! In case you missed it, no film has ever won those 4 exact awards in 92 years of Oscars history! And “Hair Love” won too!! Then we all collectively joined in celebrating their wins as something beautiful and rare, buoyed by the infectiousness of Bong Joon Ho and the whole “Paradise” team’s own unabashed joy.
Between those wins and the ethnically diverse guest performers, the Oscars seem to be working overtime to give the impression of inclusion. Yet as actress Natasha Rothwell succinctly observed on Twitter that night: “I applaud the diversity effort put forth by the producers of tonight’s show. It’s part indictment of the homogeny of tonight’s nominees, part admission of guilt and part apology–– but it’s all sound and fury signifying nothing if the academy itself doesn’t diversify.” That remains the heart of the problem: the glacial, almost imperceptible shift by the Academy (which votes for the titular awards) to actively diversify its membership.
The sad fact is this year’s Oscars had the fewest black nominees since 2016. A grand total of 5 (down from 15 in 2019, 13 in 2018 and 18 in 2017). To be clear this is in ALL 27 categories, so in fact 5 black people out of just over 220 nominees. Thankfully there were a number of Asian and Latinx nominees as well, anchored by “Parasite”‘s triumphs.
It’s no fun to play the numbers game and the best performance should be all that matters, the best films and best talent, bla bla blah. Believe me, I get that argument and it is, in fact, the entire point of #OscarsSoWhite- to level the playing field. The numbers matter whether we like it or not because the Oscars matter, whether we’re watching them or not. They are the gatekeepers, whose consensus is a huge factor in what kinds of movies get funded or whose creative vision gets backed. We can’t just set up our own movie ecosystem, as some have helpfully suggested; we can only either disrupt it like Tyler Perry and Ava DuVernay and Byron Allen are doing at a very high level, or insist on our rightful place as a part of it. Its cinematographers and costume designers and animators and sound technicians and stuntmen, as well as actors, actresses, writers, directors and producers. Its distributors and theater chains and streaming services and financiers. The award show is just the display window.
And there have been strides, due to pressure from social media activists and members of various guilds, by the Academy to step it up. The percentage of minorities among its voting membership has actually gone from 8% in 2015 to 16% in 2018, still low but rising. And after years of resisting the tide of change, the big studios are finally acknowledging that backing the visions of women and minority filmmakers isn’t just about creating an impression of wokeness but that it makes good business sense. See “Captain Marvel”, “Little Women”, “Hustlers”, “Frozen 2”, “Queen and Slim”, “The Farewell” and “Harriet” which were all critically acclaimed moneymakers in 2019. It’s impossible to look at that list and yet again justify not nominating a single woman for Best Director, or that in 92 years, only 5 women in total have ever been nominated (out of 460 possible nominations) for this award.
Only 1 has ever won.
An interesting thing is taking shape in 2020. As has been the case lately, superhero movies are once again leading the way in breaking down barriers for women in big-budget Hollywood. I’m talking mega-budget, $100m+ films. This year alone both Marvel movies will be directed by women: the summer’s “Black Widow” directed by Cate Shortland and the fall’s “The Eternals” directed by Chloe Zhao. There will also be 2 DC comic book movies in the recently released “Birds of Prey” directed by Cathy Yan and the much-anticipated Wonder Woman sequel in June with returning director Patty Jenkins, “Wonder Woman 1984”. Those are 4 TENTPOLE movies and you can add a 5th in next month’s Disney release of “Mulan”, directed by Niki Caro. It goes without saying that this is already an unprecedented (yet overdue) push to back the visions of female directors.
Now a bit of conspiracy: I feel like these brilliant filmmakers are being set up to fail.
Not because I’m too cynical to believe that the male-dominated world of big-budget Hollywood has suddenly had a complete turnaround and given up its stranglehold on the blockbuster action movie. I’ve seen stranger things. My suspicions are aroused by the way these films are being released. Point in case: this month’s “Birds of Prey”, which was, for the most part, an enjoyable movie, but was also inexplicably presented as a Hard R-rated film. What a calamitous misreading of who truly fucked with 2016’s “Suicide Squad” from which Harley Quinn emerged as a breakout star. That PG-13 movie, despite atrocious reviews, rode its way past $300m in the U.S. and close to $750m worldwide. Sequels and spin-offs were immediately commissioned and Harlequin even got her own foul-mouthed, animated show starring “The Big Bang Theory”‘s Kaley Cuoco.
So why does the R-rating on “Birds of Prey” register as a misstep?
Well, it immediately eliminates the potential for the fervent and repeat business of young girls who drove last year’s “Captain Marvel” past $1bn and “Wonder Woman” past $800m in 2017. That’s a HUGE chunk of business to lose in making what’s still the rare female-driven superhero film. In fact, all through the film, which is a really vibrant, funny, post-breakup anthem of an actioner, I kept wondering who the studio intended this movie for. It blended some very mature, nuanced themes with zany, Saturday morning cartoon characters and intensely graphic violence with a slew of “kids say the darnedest things”-level jokes. DC continues to just throw styles and visions at the wall to see what sticks, and in a way that’s how the best art is created but mannn, is it a shaky, inconsistent business model.
R-rated HIT films driven by women? You gotta target adults… see “Bridesmaids”, “Girls Trip” and “Hustlers”. If you go younger with R-rated female-centric films, trying to target teens, you wind up with critically acclaimed box office failures like “Booksmart”, “Neighbors 2” and “The Edge of Seventeen”. It’s a shitty double standard cos “Deadpool” gets to be as juvenile as he likes but “Birds of Prey” doesn’t buck this weird trend.
I’d wager one further reason the movie isn’t doing well at the boxoffice (it’s gonna struggle to get past $100m domestically by the end of its run… “Wonder Woman” and “Suicide Squad” cleared that mark on opening weekend!) is that it made the head-scratching decision to only assemble the titular Birds of Prey late in the third act of the film, which is a shame because their chemistry together was unmistakable and by far the best part of the film. The first two-thirds go to painstaking lengths to show their individual journeys, ramped up by high octane action sequences that ignite any time the movie slows down for more than a minute.
It’s clear what happened here, although I doubt they’ll ever admit it. Director Cathy Yan had a vision for this film which she made her way and then the studio bosses were like, “Cool but this needs 1000% more action” and they brought in the John Wick guy for additional shoots (that REALLY happened) and we wound up with this Frankenstein’s monster of a film that still kicks ass but the seams show. There are seriously moments where characters will be catching their breath from the last balls-to-the-wall action sequence and getting into their feelings a little when- oh shit, another balls-to-the-wall, badass action sequence.
Dear studios, how about don’t do this? If you’re gonna entrust your film to a director’s vision, then fucking trust them! I know reshoots happen all the time, and often to the betterment of the film, but stop letting it totally warp the tone and override the original intent. To put it simpler, more “Rogue One” less “Justice League”.
The other film I’m concerned about is “Mulan”. I’m seeing budget estimates of $290m – $300m which is -gulp- more than a little concerning but hey, Disney’s live-action remakes of their beloved animated library have been billion-dollar grossers, right? Mostly true except that’s been the case when the remakes have been almost shot-for-shot retreads of what already existed (“Lion King”, “Jungle Book”, “Beauty and The Beast”) and noticeably less successful when the directors have been given leeway to inject something new into the story (Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” is the one flop in this live-action retread streak and “Maleficent” is not in the box office league of those aforementioned titles). This brings us to “Mulan” which artistically falls in the latter category aka the Dare to Dream and Actually Present Is Something New. (This is a sad testament to what Disney has brought us to but here we are: starved, apparently, for what we’ve already consumed and turned off by what’s fresh and untested.) This “Mulan” film has shed the elements people loved about the cartoon (the songs, the dragon sidekick voiced by Eddie Murphy and even eventual love interest Li Shang!) and instead turned it into a war epic with an all-star Asian cast hoping, no doubt, for a “Black Panther” event type film.
This is where I’d insert that ever-handy “Conceited” GIF.
Who knows? Maybe it’ll pay off. I have no doubt it’ll be a good film as Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) has always been one helluva filmmaker. It’s just from a financial standpoint, a $300m budget means anything short of $1bn worldwide is going to be seen as a financial disappointment. If it’s any lower than $500m, it’ll be an absolute disaster. There will follow some thinly veiled and other very openly misogynistic think pieces about how women are perhaps not ready to take on the reins of big action franchises. Others still will go with the race angle. Analysts will try to calculate how much this movie lost due to cinemas across China being shutdown thanks to Coronavirus. And no one will bother to ask how many war epics have ever made it to $500m at the box office? Or even $400m? As in EVER?
Set. Up. To. Fail.
I hope I’m wrong and proven to be an ignorant asshole like the folks who predicted “Black Panther” would be an embarrassing failure. The other 3 films seem healthily poised to crush it, particularly “WW84” which I can’t fucking wait to see.
Oh “Bad Boys 3” was a total surprise and a far better sequel than “Bad Boys 2”. Took me back to what I loved about the original and I can’t recall the last time I actually enjoyed an action movie but this shit rocked. What a win for Will Smith and Martin Lawrence!
Shout out Michelle and Barack Obama who didn’t win the Oscar personally but the first film from their production company, Higher Ground Productions, won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It’s called “American Factory”; stirring, funny, profound and timely as fuck. On Netflix now.
Blessings and strength to the family of Nikita Pearl Waligwa who stole every scene she was in in “Queen of Katwe”. Gone far too soon but leaves a legacy for so many to aspire to.