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The misinterpretation of 'America First' Oscars

Jochen Kürten
February 10, 2020

History was made at the 2020 Oscars, with "Parasite" winning best film. But DW's Jochen Kürten says a lot still needs to change if the film awards want to truly be a forum for socially relevant debates.

The Oscar ceremony in LA(Reuters/M. Anzuoni)
Image: Reuters/M. Anzuoni

Too white and too male: That was the central accusation in the run-up to this year's Oscar ceremony. The Oscars do not honor enough female directors and scriptwriters, nor enough filmmakers of color, the critique went.

One can agree with that. The criticism can also be substantiated with facts and figures. But isn't it high time to dig deeper to get to the root of the problem with the Oscars?

Let's take a quick look back: The Oscars were first held in 1929, when films were still largely silent. It was a different period. Powerful studio managers ruled Hollywood. The medium was still relatively young, but it had already entered its first crisis by the end of the 1920s. People were not going to the movie theaters.

An award had to be created — one that would put cinema back in the spotlight. It took intense marketing, press work and a festive gala, but the concept worked. The Oscars turned out to be a success story. It didn't happen that first year, but soon enough the Oscar ceremony, with all its trimmings, developed into a powerful driving force for the entire industry.

Awards were given to films that had previously run in US cinemas, which meant nothing other than American films. European cinema, not to mention that of other continents, had a hard time in the US. The Oscars were a national film prize. They were intended to strengthen the domestic film market. It worked — and basically nothing much has changed in this respect to this day.

Except for the fact that the entire world has changed. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the trade organization behind the awards, became aware of this at some point. In 1948 a special achievement prize was introduced for non-English-language films from abroad that had been released in the US. This particular Oscar was renamed "best foreign-language film" in 1957.

Read more: Oscar buzz for heartfelt North Macedonian documentary

A US prize

As of 2020, the prize is called "best international feature film." Five films are usually nominated, which means the entire film world is supposed to be represented in just this one category. On the flip side, however, this means that the Oscars are still national film awards. There is nothing objectionable about that; other countries do the exact same thing.

The only difference is the Oscars are enormously influential thanks to their financial strength, the glamour of the red carpet and the dominance of Hollywood films all over the world. Many people consider the Oscars to be the film world's most important prizes. But they are "America First" awards. In no way do they reflect global cinema, whereas the Cannes or Venice film festival awards do.

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DW's Jochen Kürten

Artistically, the Oscars are misinterpreted and hopelessly overrated. That's why it's pointless to overload them with all sorts of lofty goals: that more women should be nominated; that more attention should be given to African American filmmakers; that every US demographic group should be honored. Those are the demands.

European Film Awards can do more!

Europeans, to name only this continent, should be self-confident enough to design their own film award ceremony in such a way that it reflects the diversity of languages and peoples. The European Film Awards, which began in 1988, make this possible — and are actually doing it.

But European media, even the open-minded and critical outlets, tend to gaze spellbound at Hollywood. Who will win this year? Who will wear what on the red carpet? What possibly critical comment on world events will be made at the gala? Will climate change be addressed? And so on ...

The team behind the South Korean dark comedy 'Parasite' celebrated its best-picture win at the 2020 Oscars
The team behind the South Korean dark comedy 'Parasite' celebrated its best-picture win at the 2020 OscarsImage: Reuters/M. Anzuoni

So, ladies and gentlemen, the Oscars are a perfectly styled show. It is beautiful to watch, a place where stars meet. It also pays tribute to good US films. But it is not a festival of international cinema. It is not a suitable forum for socially relevant debates. Nor should it be taken too seriously when it comes to women's rights and those of minorities. There are other, more important forums for that.

The Oscars ceremony is a show, a setting for glitzy fashion, gossip and tabloids. This is not changed by the fact that this year Parasite, a South Korean comedy, garnered the best film award — the first non-English-language film to do so in Oscar history. If the Oscars aim to become truly international film awards, they would have to radically rethink their categories. Then they could also be approached with socially relevant demands. Otherwise, the Oscars will remain what they are: commercial US film awards with a whole lot of razzle-dazzle.

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