The BAFTAs and Oscars 2020: Diversity and Environmental Concerns, with Dr Niamh Thornton

by Toby Lawson

This year’s BAFTAs and Oscars, the two biggest film award ceremonies here in the UK and in America, were surrounded by discussions of diversity and environmental activism. The events were marred in controversy in respect to the lack of diversity their awards seemed to showcase, with many shocked that 2020 events seemed like a step in the wrong direction. At the BAFTAs not a single person of colour was nominated in any of the acting categories, with the Oscars only nominating one, Cynthia Eviro in her role in Harriet (2019). In respect to female diversity, there was not a single female director nominated at either event, with many feeling Greta Gerwig and her film Little Women (2019) was snubbed at the events. Indignation at these decisions were highlighted even in the events outfits, with Natalie Portman sporting a cape at the Oscars emblazoned with the names of overlooked female directors such as Gerwig. Ultimately, as host Graham Norton pointed out ironically, this became the year ‘white men broke through’, symbolised through the 11 nominations for the film Joker (2019), which Norton joked was the story where ‘a white man made himself whiter’. Joaquin Phoenix, star of Joker, was not happy to just accept this success, bringing attention in his BAFTAs victory speech to point out that these events ‘send a very clear message to people that you’re not welcome here’ when referring to the lack of diversity (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/feb/02/joaquin-phoenixs-attack-on-baftas-for-systemic-racism-meets-industry-wide-praise).

To try understand the issues the lack of diversity entails, I spoke to Dr Niamh Thornton, a Reader in Latin American studies in the University of Liverpool’s Film Studies department. When asking her about the importance of diversity, she said that despite these film ceremonies at first just representing a trade show, their popularity has meant it become more about a representation of ‘who do we privilege and what do we value, and also who do we value and whose stories get valued’ in the film industry. She linked this then to visual representation, the idea that ‘If you can’t see it you can’t be it’, with awards piled on films centred around white, male stories sending a clear message to those different that their story is not as valuable and that you are not part of the ‘cultured conversation’ in film. Dr Thornton argued this culture needed to adapt beyond solely films made by white people, featuring white people from ‘the west’ and instead to create and then include stories in this culture that feature more women as well as those from areas that are usually overlooked, such as Africa, crediting the work of filmmakers such as Geena Davis and Ava DuVernay in pushing these ideas. The awards however did not just send out negative messages, with the surprise win of Parasite (2019) as first non-English best picture and its director Bong Joon-Ho as winner of best director at the Oscars represented a shift at the awards. Dr Thornton highlighted how Parasite’s success showcased how the Oscars ‘have really changed the make-up’ of the panels who decide winners, incorporating more globalist inclusivity to their decision making.

As well as diversity issues, the events saw unprecedented levels of focus on environmental issues, especially climate change and single use plastics. The events promised this year to reduce waste and energy use as much as possible, with the BAFTAs taking measures such as banning single use plastics, using a recycled red carpet, introducing vegan meals, replacing the goodie bag with a ‘gifting wallet’ made of recycled plastic and encouraging guests to reuse or buy sustainable outfits. Best Actor winner at both events Joaquin Phoenix also brought attention to the importance of his diet, Veganism. An obscure diet as of several years ago, its has surged in popularity in recent years, especially in respect to the prevalence of climate change. On what was probably the high-profile endorsement of Veganism, Phoenix dedicated his Oscars acceptance speech to it, lamenting how humans ‘go into the natural world and we plunder it for its resources. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakeable’ (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/feb/10/joaquin-phoenixs-oscars-speech-in-full).

When talking to Dr Thornton about this new emphasis on environmentalism, I asked how the film industry can endorse such claims whilst also being a huge contributor to carbon emissions. The film industry requires huge amounts of energy through extensive air travel, in filming, lighting, special effects and the vast crews they require to be produced. The film ceremonies themselves were places Dr Thornton thought were ‘a really good place to have the conversation and provoke the conversation’ around these issues in bringing wider prevalence to these ideas, not in necessarily changing anyone’s minds but making them think about what Veganism and Climate Change. In terms of their resource use, Dr Thornton thought the Dogme-95 rules of film making, in advocating for less special effects and more natural lighting although not intended to combat energy use, might become useful as a precedent in the future for films having an energy ‘ten commandments’ when filming to in order to reduce their carbon footprint in respect to climate change. When financially backed by governments or national organisations in the UK, films are already subject certain guidelines concerning their carbon footprint and Dr Thornton would not be surprised if in the future, with the increasing seriousness of climate change these will have to be thought about ‘differently or more thoroughly’ than they are currently.

This year’s film events certainly left a lot to discuss and thank you to Dr Niamh Thornton for taking the time out to talk to me about these issues. This was only a brief overview of our discussion and our full interview can be found here https://soundcloud.com/thepoliticshour2018/week-3-uk-show. For further discussion around these events Dr Thornton has written an article focusing on how Jennifer Lopez was overlooked at this year’s events and the wider significance this has concerning diversity https://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/mediatico/2020/02/03/so-why-hasnt-j-lo-been-nominated-for-any-of-the-big-film-industry-awards/.

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