Just How Relevant Are the Oscars in 2020? Wellesley's Michael Jeffries Weighs In

February 7, 2020
A professor stands on Wellesley's campus looking directly into the camera

On February 9, Hollywood glitterati will gather in the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles for the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony. In recent years, the academy has come under fire for an overall lack of diversity, both in its own body and in the films and performances it nominates. Here, Wellesley’s Michael Jeffries, Class of 1949 Professor in Ethics and associate professor of American studies, talks about how far the academy has come in diversifying its nominations since the infamous #OscarsSoWhite hashtag of 2015, what performances and films he feels were left out of this year’s categories, and whether the Oscars are still relevant.

Q: What nominations stood out for you this year? Did any of them demonstrate a shift in how the academy functions in making its selections?

Michael Jeffries: When Issa Rae announced the best director category live, she quipped “Congratulations to those men,” emphasizing the absence of women, after reading the full list of nominees. The nominees for best actor, actress, supporting actor, and supporting actress are overwhelmingly white as well. So we’re still in a place where race and gender inequities are reflected and sustained in the movie business. Having said that, the academy is more diverse than it was a few years ago, and Parasite [a Korean film] is the odds-on favorite to win best picture, which would be a breakthrough. So there are some signs of change, but still a long way to go.

Q: What performances or films do you feel were snubbed this year?

Jeffries: The biggest snub, in my opinion is, that Greta Gerwig wasn’t nominated for best director for her work on Little Women. The film received nominations for best picture, best actress, best supporting actress, and best adapted screenplay. So Gerwig’s omission is something of an insult: It seems to suggest that the movie turned out so well in spite of her, rather than because of her.

Q: What do some of the snubs (or, on the flip side, the overwhelming number of nominations for some films, such as Joker) tell us about our current cultural moment and the sorts of stories that are being honored with institutional awards?

Jeffries: I can’t put it any better than Joker star Joaquin Phoenix did during his acceptance speech at the BAFTA awards, when he called out the systematic racism in the movie industry. He said he was ashamed that actors of color aren’t given the same recognition, and that “the message that we’re sending to people that have contributed so much to our medium and our industry and in ways that we benefit from” is that they’re unwelcome. He also took some of the blame for the problem himself, which was refreshing.

As for Joker, I’m conflicted. I didn’t see the film, because at the moment, I don’t have an appetite for stylized portrayals of men committing heinous acts of violence. On the other hand, I think it has resulted in some important conversations about the prevalence and liberty afforded to films with such content. It also sparked conversations about the connections between mental illness, violence, and criminality, three themes that are poorly understood and linked more by stereotype and prejudice than they are by scientific reality.

Q: Is it a good decision, in your mind, to continue to have a show without a host? What are your hopes for the ceremony?

Jeffries: According to The Hollywood Reporter, 2019 viewership was up 11.5 percent over the previous year and 13 percent among adults ages 18 to 49. Ratings had been plummeting before then, so the no-host format appears to have paid dividends, and I expect it to continue. My hope for the ceremony is that the presenters and the awardees will continue to use their platform to call attention to inequities and injustice both inside and outside the entertainment industry.

Q: Are there any movies or performances you are especially rooting for?

Jeffries: I’m rooting for [best actress nominee for Harriet] Cynthia Erivo, a brilliant performer with a compelling family story and a limitless future in the business.

Q: Are the Oscars still relevant in 2020?

Jeffries: Few people really think the Oscars are last word on cinematic greatness, but they’re still important. They shape careers and empower people within the business. They also create space for important conversations about art, inequality, and justice.