How history-making wins for ‘Parasite’ and ‘The Farewell’ can shift Hollywood’s diversity narrative

February 10, 2020, 9:45 PM UTC
"Parasite" director Bong Joon-ho poses with the Oscar for Best Screenplay for "Parasite" as he attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party following the 92nd Oscars at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills on February 9, 2020. (Photo by Jean-Baptiste Lacroix / AFP) (Photo by JEAN-BAPTISTE LACROIX/AFP via Getty Images)
Jean-Baptiste Lacroix—AFP via Getty Images

In the days leading up to director Bong Joon Ho’s history-shattering Oscar wins for Neon’s Parasite, which earned four trophies including Best Picture, there was a rare giddiness in the air among pundits as they debated one key question: Could the year’s most audacious, thrilling movie actually beat Universal’s World War I epic 1917?

Bong’s incendiary satire about a poor Korean family whose con of an upper-class couple ends in tragedy didn’t just sweep this year’s Oscars. The film may have also forever changed how the Academy, and Hollywood, defines excellence: Parasite, and Indie Spirits Best Feature winner The Farewell by Asian-American director Lulu Wang, both achieved greatness by telling modern, specific stories about their communities that ultimately were stories about all of us.

Where Barry Jenkins’s 2016 Best Picture winner Moonlight broke ground in its depiction of contemporary African-Americans (after decades of Oscar predominantly acknowledging slavery-and-civil-rights narratives for its black actors and storytellers), Parasite and The Farewell were also conspicuously timely in their themes of class divide and the duality of immigrant identity. Oh, and the characters are also funny, sexual, bawdy, and despicable, too—multi-dimensionality rarely afforded to nonwhite performers.

Lulu Wang poses in the press room with the Best Feature award for the film “The Farewell” during the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Awards on Feb. 8. The film, which stars Awkwafina, focuses on a Chinese family that chooses not to tell their grandmother that she’s dying.
Phillip Faraone—Getty Images

And if Moonlight was unique in its depiction of young, black male queerness, Parasite and Farewell (about a Chinese family whose grandmother is dying, but they don’t tell her) are equally game-changing for their broad universality. It’s fun, and easy, actually, to imagine either film set anywhere else in the world, in any culture, in any language. And we may not have realized when we first saw them, but that’s exactly what made both films ultimately so damn good, despite featuring casts generally unknown to American audiences (apart from The Farewell’s lead, Awkwafina).

If Hollywood and its awards engine, a giant, multimillion-dollar business, hope to rectify their ongoing inclusion conundrum, the narrative has to shift away from a diversity-scorecard approach. Instead, it needs to move toward a broader commitment to developing, acquiring, promoting, and awards-funding more globally minded narratives in which viewers can potentially most see themselves. Whether fair or not, the year’s most traditional Oscar contenders—Netflix’s The Irishman, Sony’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, and Fox’s Ford v Ferrari, for three—likely suffered for their lacking in emotional relatability, despite their impressive talent pedigrees.

But this doesn’t mean Hollywood stalwarts should be put out to pasture. It just means that for every Martin Scorsese there must now be a Bong Joon Ho; that for every Quentin Tarantino there is a Lulu Wang (and more women at the helm overall, please).

And for those brave enough to dare the most difficult task of all—writing—hopefully the resounding successes of Parasite and The Farewell will inspire a new credo: A good story can never be too daring, personal or, in Parasite’s case, totally, wonderfully crazy.

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