Parasite Makes History: Thoughts on the 92nd Academy Awards

by Ken Bakely

A mostly solid (though sometimes oddly paced) Oscars ceremony came through in the end, with a jaw-droppingly thrilling and history-making finale in the form of a victory for Parasite

The evening began with an energetic and entertaining musical number from Janelle Monáe, which was followed by a brief monologue from Chris Rock and Steve Martin. It seems that the Oscars are settling into the variety of talent and performances that can come from not having any single host. On the whole, the strategy seems to work, but there still appears to be some inconsistency in how elaborate the segments and sketches are from moment to moment, and how that works into the overall pacing of the show. There were times when they were longer and more developed, not unlike material a host would be given, and other times when the presenters delivered a couple of lines before jumping into the presentation, or even worse, when performers were thrown onstage without any introduction at all. The performances themselves were mostly enjoyable (Cynthia Ervio singing “Stand Up” as the arguable highlight) and kept the show going at a nice clip, except for an unexpected, mid-show appearance from Eminem, who performed “Lose Yourself,” a song that won an Oscar 17 years ago. The moment felt abrupt and unexplained, a recurring element of many factors of the ceremony. 

But let’s move onto this year’s winners, as there’s a lot to discuss. Starting with more obvious matters, the four acting frontrunners who have led the season finished with wins here: Joaquin Phoenix, Renée Zellweger, Brad Pitt, and Laura Dern. Pitt and Dern gave good speeches. Phoenix’s was sometimes hard to keep track of, but not unlike his remarks throughout the season. And though the sentiment Zellweger’s remarks was touching, centering on tributes to Judy Garland and the many “heroes that unite us,” her speech was a seemingly random collection of observations and remarks that was impossible to follow. The varying quality of the speeches, in their own way, served as an encapsulation of the program’s rambling structure. Speaking further to the awards, many of the technical prizes were as predictable as the four acting categories. In my predictions, which were published over at Film Pulse, I correctly called 19 of the 24 contests, for a 79% accuracy rate, much better than I’ve been doing in the last few years.  However, the real takeaways from tonight are from who won at the very end of the evening, so let’s talk about Parasite’s spectacular wins. 

From the moment that Spike Lee announced that Bong Joon-ho had upset heavy favorite Sam Mendes to win the prize for achievement in directing, it became apparent we were on the precipice of something unforgettable. Then, at the end of the night, when Jane Fonda announced that Parasite had taken Best Picture, the audience in the room leapt to their feet in an ebullient standing ovation, welcoming the film’s cast and crew onto the stage and into history, as the makers of the first Best Picture winner not in English. It was an ecstatic moment of celebration. The adoration for this marvelous film has been towering and near-universal, from audiences to critics to industry guilds, and the passion that viewers have for it has been overwhelming and undeniable. However, it still seemed like something of an unsure factor going into Oscar night; though I predicted Parasite to win, I was hardly sure of it. When the Oscar nominations were announced last month, many noticed that the voters still seem to have trouble seeing through the veneer of their old-fashioned, overwhelmingly white, and Anglosphere-centric lens at times. And through the past few weeks, questions continued to swirl as to whether the old guard of the Academy would go for a foreign-language film, especially when such a traditionalist vision of a Best Picture winner existed in the form of 1917

Yet at the same time, it was always hard to ignore the enthusiastic support that Bong Joon-ho and company consistently received, and in this whirlwind of a ceremony, the considerable success of Parasite was well-represented. This win is not only a tremendous victory for an excellent movie, but a sign that the Academy, with its changing demographics, has the potential to steer away from a milquetoast past and into a more exciting, relevant, and global future. There are still long ways to go before the Oscars’ many problems are solved. But in giving its highest honor to a South Korean satirical thriller about socioeconomic inequality, there’s a hope on the horizon that we can all embrace with full spirit. In other words, our main takeaway from tonight is that a better tomorrow for the awards season is possible. The progress made tonight can’t be taken for granted, but should rather be seen as a sign of what can be done, if this organization can start to regularly look beyond its traditional definitions of the movies and individuals it has rewarded in the past.