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A window into the film industry

A College of Liberal Arts professor examines how the Oscars have succeeded and fallen short in representing the film industry.

Daniel Humphrey

By Hannah LeGare ’19

In the past several years, trending hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite comment on the lack of diversity within the film industry and award ceremonies. These moments raise concern in areas of representation within the film industry and the recognition of specific people groups.

Daniel Humphrey, associate professor of film studies and women’s and gender studies, researches European cinema, queer cinema, and issues of representation in the film industry. Humphrey keeps abreast of current issues in the contemporary American film industry.

This includes staying up-to-date with various film award festivals and events — like the Oscars — and their significance to the film industry. The Academy Awards, more popularly known as the Oscars, are awards for artistic and technical merit in the global film industry. The Oscars globally recognize the top people in categories such as Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Cinematography.

“The Oscars are a window into how the film industry wants to be perceived around the world,” said Humphrey. 

According to Humphrey, the film industry wants to put its ‘best face’ forward, but sometimes this isn’t a ‘diverse face’ that is representative of the industry. This causes concern within award ceremonies and recognition. “The Oscars cannot nominate people who did not get hired to make a film in a given year,” said Humphrey. 

Humphrey highlighted that if people from diverse backgrounds are not hired to work on a film, then they are not able to be nominated or recognized. This is a problem not so much in the Oscars — but within the film industry. 

However, there are notable people and performances from minority groups that should be recognized but are snubbed at the Oscars. And therein lies the tension.

Humphrey states that the tension might lie within the Oscars membership pool, who are the voters of the awards, which may be perceived as being ‘out-of-touch’ with the film industry. 

“Historically, the average age of the voters was about 63 years old and the members were mostly white men,” said Humphrey. “To attempt to remedy this, there have been two in Oscar history when the membership pool was expanded and welcomed new blood into the voting process.”

In welcoming a more diverse voting pool, it has increased the frequency of films with a diverse crew and cast to win the Oscars. 

“Both times the membership was adjusted, it seemed to rejuvenate the Oscars, with edgier films like The Godfather and The French Connection winning awards the first time, in the 1970s; and films like Moonlight and Parasite winning in the 2010s,” said Humphrey. “These films might not have won had it not been for the younger voters who vote for the films they like and see themselves in.”

On February 9, 2020, the South Korean film, Parasite, won the Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Some say this win was bound to happen eventually, as it was the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture across the 90-plus years the awards have existed. 

Director Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar success has been applauded and celebrated by those who want more diversity within nominations and wins.

While the Oscars aren’t perfect, there have been changes within the film industry that have allowed diverse films to win nominations. Wins, like Parasite for Best Picture, show that the Oscars are for the global film industry, and aren’t explicitly for the American film industry. These films denote the feelings and thoughts of the industry, society, and culture. The wins signify the recognition of these themes and continued relevance to us, especially in areas of diversity and inclusion. 

Read more of Humphrey’s work here.