#RepresentationMatters

#RepresentationMatters

Written by Devon Mancini, MA Candidate in Museum Professions at Seton Hall University

On Sunday evening February 9, the film world gathered at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards to celebrate the achievements of artists and cinema professionals who, over the course of 2019, collaborated to produce ingenious and original films portrayed through groundbreaking screenplay, cinematography, production design, editing and other avenues of production. During the ceremony, the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences, an organization made up of cinema professionals that “uphold excellence in motion pictures,”[1] announced the long-awaited opening of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. This Los Angeles-based museum, set to open its doors in December of 2020, will be dedicated to representing groundbreaking films and film professionals. With the announcement of this museum, Oscar announcers and nominees this year also spent the evening reminding viewers and guests of the importance of representation in culture and the arts, an issue that many museums are seeking to improve.

Janelle Monáe opened the Oscars with her interactive performance recognizing the great films of 2019, setting the mood for the evening. With a proud reminder of her presence in the LGBTQ and African American communities, Monáe closed her performance with a loud and proud “Happy Black History Month!” These acknowledgements, as well as the other artists who made history with accomplishments, performances, and nominations, reminded us about the importance of equity and inclusion. There were also references to the Representation Matters movement, a movement so widespread across disciplines that it is hard to track where it began. The movement speaks on the importance of diverse representation in positions of power, cultural and artistic fields like in film and television, and in a number of other areas, and how these representations impact youth.

Academy Award winners Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver spoke on this impact in their acceptance speech for Best Animated Short Film category for their film Hair Love. Hair Love is a story about a little girl who is shown the beauty of her natural hair. It was created for little girls of color to realize that their hair is something to be proud of and to see beauty in, not something that society wants them to change. With Hair Love, the creators want to normalize black hair, and in his speech, Cherry referenced and raised awareness to the Crown Act, legislature (where) that is working to ban discrimination based around hair, and asked the audience to lend their support to the movement. Toliver later stated that cartoons and animated films are often the first films that children are exposed to, and therefore have a large impact on their psyches. When children see themselves as characters in these films, with their natural features normalized, they are enabled to see the beauty in themselves that they see in those characters. Not only this, but to see two black filmmakers take home an Academy Award allows children and young adults to see that their dreams are possible.

Nominees, announcers, and winners throughout the ceremony references the increasing diversity in Hollywood movie making, specifically acknowledging the accomplishments of filmmakers who come from a background that is often overshadowed in Hollywood. They did this to also highlight that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the determining force behind Academy Awards, still often overshadows people of color, women, and members of other minority groups.

Despite this fact, these boundaries were broken with nominations, performances, and Academy Award winners from backgrounds never acknowledged before on the Oscars stage. These included Cynthia Erivo’s emotional performance of the Academy Award nominated song “Stand Up,” from the film Harriet; the win of American Factory for best Documentary Feature Film produced by the Obama family; Elton John’s performance of the Academy award-winning song “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again;” the change in award title from Best Foreign Language Film to Best International Film; Eimear Noone’s Best Original Score conduction; all of these firsts made an incredible reference to the Representation Matters movement because they brought to the stage people of color, people of the LGBTQ community, women, and international filmmakers.

Taika Waititi, after winning an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, gave a moving speech encouraging indigenous people across the world, who he called “the original storytellers,” to follow their dreams and tell their stories. Later in the show, Waititi, the first Maori filmmaker to win an Oscar, was welcomed to the stage again, where he announced that, “The Academy would like to acknowledge that tonight we have gathered on the ancestral lands of the Tongva, the Tataviam and the Chumash. We acknowledge them as the first peoples of this land on which the motion pictures community lives and works,”[2] making history as well as acknowledging a history that has been overwritten for centuries in America and often by Hollywood.

Finally, to close out the show, South Korean director Bong Joon Ho swept three of the biggest Oscar categories with his film Parasite. Ho is the first South Korean filmmaker to win an Academy Award; and Parasite made history as the first South Korean film to win Best International Film, Best Director, and finally, Best Picture. It was also the first film not in the English language to win Best Picture. Ho and his team crossed the Oscars stage and delivered their speeches with the help of Sharon Choi, aspiring director and friend of Ho, who translated for them. Their speech proved that film, like many of the arts, is something that reaches all borders and brings the world together to a new understanding.

This was a groundbreaking year for film, with great accomplishments that have never been reached before, as well as increased diversity on the Oscars stage. As museum professionals, we must remember that as we strive for equity and inclusion in our staffing, boards, and visitor population, we play a strong role in promoting representation and changing the lives of our communities. With the opening of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, there is an opportunity to provide representation and education to members of the community that wish to follow their dreams in the film world. With an opening exhibition celebrating the accomplishments of Japanese animated film creator Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli animations, they may be on the right track to celebrating diversity. This year’s awards remind us the impact that we can make through our institutions, and how we have the capability to provide people with the tools necessary to follow their dreams.

[1] “About”. 2020. Oscars.Org | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. https://www.oscars.org/about.

[2] Baj, Lavender. 2020. “ABOUT TIME: Taika Waititi Gave the First Land Acknowledgement Speech in Oscars History”. Pedestrian TV. https://www.pedestrian.tv/entertainment/oscars-land-acknowledgement-taika-waititi/.

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