These Oscar Best Picture nominees are ‘problematic’—but will that matter?

January 16, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

The 2020 Academy Award nominations have officially been announced.

Cue the outrage.

Depending upon your point of view, it seems that nearly all of the films nominated for Best Picture this year can be deemed problematic: racist, sexist, or offensive for other reasons. So which film will emerge as this year’s Oscar villain, the movie that comes to typify everything that’s wrong with Hollywood?

Last year, in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards, there was a growing backlash against Green Book for, among other things, its problematic narrative featuring a “white savior” and a “Magical Negro.” None of the controversies seemed to make a significant difference with the Academy, which bestowed the Best Picture award on the film.

“That was an echo chamber,” says John Sloss, who has produced or executive-produced over 60 films, including the Academy Award–winning The Fog of War, Boys Don’t Cry, Boyhood, and last year’s Best Picture winner Green Book. “I think it’s interesting who gets a pass and who doesn’t, and there’s not necessarily a prevailing logic behind it.”

Viggo Mortensen (left) and Mahershala Ali in “Green Book.” Despite winning Best Picture at the Oscars last year, it was criticized for the problematic “white savior” trope, amongst other issues.
Patti Perret—Universal /Courtesy Everett Collection

A number of past Best Picture winners fall into the problematic “white savior” trope including Driving Miss Daisy (1990) and Dances With Wolves (1991), as well as Best Picture nominees such as Lincoln (2013), The Help (2012), The Blind Side (2010), Crash (2006), and Mississippi Burning (1989), to name just a few. Those films were critiqued somewhat at the time, but before social media exploded, the backlash never had a chance to snowball.

Though we look to the Academy Awards to gauge the pulse of our culture and to get a sense of who we are—and how we want to be represented—as a society, it’s not as if Academy members vote as one cohesive block.

“A lot of folks want to use the Academy Awards to get promotion for their own ideas and their own causes,” says Jonathan Kuntz, film historian and lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “But the Academy Awards aren’t something where a room full of people sit down and debate it. It’s literally thousands of people voting for their favorite movies.”

The films competing for Best Picture at the 2020 Academy Awards are Ford v FerrariThe IrishmanJojo RabbitJokerLittle WomenMarriage Story1917Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and Parasite.

There’s already been pushback against some of these films, with Vulture and other sites pointing out an unusually high number of Best Picture nominees centered around angry white men this year.

Now that Oscar campaigning is in high gear, you can count on these controversies to escalate.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in “Joker.”
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures


Perhaps the most divisive film of the year, Todd Phillips’s Joker, which some critics see as a celebration of toxic masculinity, received 11 Academy Award nominations, the highest number of any film this year.

Even before hitting theaters on Oct. 4, the film stirred controversy for its sympathetic portrayal of a violent heterosexual white man. In her review of the film out of the Venice Film Festival, where it premiered last August, Time film critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote that Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck/Joker “could easily be adopted as the patron saint of incels.”

“In America, there’s a mass shooting or attempted act of violence by a guy like Arthur practically every other week. And yet we’re supposed to feel some sympathy for Arthur, the troubled lamb; he just hasn’t had enough love,” wrote Zacharek.

There was also concern the film might spark violence. Family members and friends of victims in the 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colo., where a gunman opened fire and killed 12 moviegoers and injured 70 more during a showing of The Dark Knight Rises, wrote a letter to Joker‘s distributor Warner Bros., calling for accountability: “We’re calling on you to use your massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities with fewer guns.” 

The U.S. military even went so far as to issue a warning to servicemen about credible threats of mass shootings at screenings of the film.

The controversy over Joker, which has also been called out for its representation of mental illness and its depiction of black women, shows no signs of slowing down—especially not after director Todd Phillips seemed to dismiss concerns about the film’s depiction of violence during a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.

“It kind of bummed us out that it was so divisive,” he said. “But it does seem to be that we live in an age of outrage now and people look for things to be outraged about, and they’re going to be outraged just about that comment, probably. It’s become a thing.”

Quentin Tarantino and Margot Robbie on the set of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” Robbie has almost no lines, while the macho leading men (Academy Award–nominated Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio) get to play heroes and rewrite history, some critics say.
Andrew Cooper—Sony Pictures

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Though Quentin Tarantino’s latest film has racked up awards (winning a Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy) and praise, it’s also been called “obscenely regressive” and has been taken to task over numerous issues, most notably its portrayal of women.

Academy Award–nominated Margot Robbie, who plays the late Sharon Tate, has almost no lines, while the macho leading men (Academy Award–nominated Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio) get to play heroes and rewrite history.

Robbie’s Tate was seen by some as a passive receptacle for the male gaze, a dreamy fantasy girl destined to be forever associated with her tragic ending. If Tarantino was so intent on rewriting history, critics noted, why not let Tate have a more invigorating presence in the film?

The paean to old Hollywood also erased people of color, with the exception of a controversial depiction of the late martial arts legend Bruce Lee. His daughter Shannon Lee told Variety: “I really do think [Once Upon a Time] did a disservice to him. I think it did a disservice to Asian actors, and I think that it was really a shame.”

Tarantino, who was nominated for Best Director, has been criticized for his depiction of women in his films—and specifically, how violence against women is often played for laughs, as it is in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Remember that the film won for Best Picture Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes—and it sure isn’t a musical.

Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in “Jojo Rabbit,” which features Waititi as an imaginary Adolf Hitler.
Kimberley French—Twentieth Century Fox

Jojo Rabbit’

Wth its depiction of cartoonish Nazis, including director Taika Waititi’s portrayal of Hitler as harmless imaginary friend, Best Picture nominee Jojo Rabbit was bound to be contentious.

Or as Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman writes, the movie “that invites us to deplore the evil actions of the Nazis but adore the cuddly comedy of seeing them turned into over-the-top fops and fools, looks, at a glance, to have inspired a textbook case of love-it-or-hate-it divisiveness.”

At a screening of the film at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles in November, Rick Trank, Oscar-winning producer of the 1997 documentary The Long Way Home, about Jewish refugees following WWII, expressed concerns about young people seeing JoJo Rabbit without historical context. “They see kind of a madcap wacky Hitler and these madcap kind of wacky Nazis, what are they walking away with?” Trank asked.

Will Oscar voters embrace the film, which positions itself as “anti-hate,” or will antipathy toward the movie increase?

The Irishman

While Martin Scorsese’s multi-Oscar-nominated film has been loaded with praise, it’s also been criticized for its lack of female representation. Oscar-winning Anna Paquin speaks just seven words as Peggy Sheeran, daughter of Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran (a.k.a. The Irishman). And she’s arguably the most prominent female character in the entire three-and-a-half-hour film.

Separately, the film’s veracity has been questioned by the real-life Chuckie O’Brien, Jimmy Hoffa’s foster son, portrayed by Jesse Plemons.

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, O’Brien’s stepson, author Jack Goldsmith, wrote, “Despite the ‘true crime’ feel, the movie is high fiction. ‘One of the greatest fake movies I ever saw,’ Chuckie told me.”

Marriage Story’

Netflix movie Marriage Story, which follows a couple’s divorce, hasn’t generated a ton of controversy. But now that the Noah Baumbach film has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, that could change. There’s already been a bit of backlash against the film on Twitter and elsewhere online, with some saying Baumbach is working through issues with real-life ex Jennifer Jason Leigh. “From there it didn’t take much effort to paint the movie as a male director getting revenge on his actress ex-wife,” writes Nate Jones at Vulture.

Saoirse Ronan (top, center) as Jo, Florence Pugh (right) as Amy, and Emma Watson (left) as Meg in Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of “Little Women.”
Wilson Webb—Columbia Pictures

Little Women

Though Little Women director Greta Gerwig was snubbed in the Best Director category, she was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, and the film itself was nominated for Best Picture. At first glance, this oft-told tale of the March sisters seems noncontroversial. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that there has been pushback against the film, which some have dubbed “Little White Women.”

Teen Vogue suggests that Gerwig should have considered incorporating more nonwhite actors in the ensemble, perhaps even giving the male romantic lead, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) to a person of color. Others have asked why it was necessary to remake Little Women with a cast as white as previous adaptations.

“When we talk about Little Women being a universal or an ‘All-American Girl’ novel, we can’t ignore that it’s because we, as a society, have given whiteness that space to be ‘universal,’ even as it excludes everyone else,” wrote Princess Weekes at The Mary Sue.


It’s a box office sensation, a Golden Globe winner (for Best Drama), and now a front-runner for Best Picture at the Oscars. The Sam Mendes–directed WWI drama has received mostly terrific reviews. But while it has largely escaped controversy, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis says the film sanitizes the horrors of WWI, turning “one of the most catastrophic episodes in modern times into an exercise in preening showmanship.”

So far, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, the biting social satire about economic inequality, and Ford v Ferrari, a.k.a. “Matt Damon and Christian Bale’s race car movie,” have largely remained out of the fray.

Despite the backlash surrounding the other films, it’s unlikely that it will hurt their chances on Oscar night Feb. 9, says Erik Anderson, founder of Awardswatch.

“I think last year showed us everything that we really need to know,” says Anderson, who points out that the bulk of controversy and pushback against movies like Green Book came from nonvoters. “If you talk to actual voters, all they care about is the movie.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—The oral history of Laura Dern—in her own words
World War I takes the pop culture spotlight after years of being the “neglected war”
—Disney is ready to roll out new Star Wars sagas as one story ends
—Indie movies and diverse performers mostly absent from 2020 Oscar noms
Picard promises less tech, more humanity with “hope the dominant emotion,” according to Patrick Stewart
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