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Oscars 2021: Who Decides What Counts As Controversy?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, the 93rd annual Academy Awards are happening this evening. And while the pandemic has made the run-up to tonight's Oscars ceremony a very different kind of award season, one thing has stayed the same. This year's nominations have ignited controversies.

So we thought we'd look ahead to the show by reviewing some of the issues and beefs that have emerged out of this year's nominations, and we're also going to ask, who decides what's considered a controversy anyway? To help us answer these pressing Oscar questions, we called NPR's own Aisha Harris, co-host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. And Aisha is with us now. Welcome. Thank you for being here.

AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: How exactly do these controversies get started? Who decides that something is a controversy?

HARRIS: Well, a lot of times, it's often a mixture of a couple of different sources for the controversy. Often, it's critics and film writers. You know, part of the Oscars is this generation of publicity, and that is generated by people like myself in the media who are writing about these things. So people at NPR, at The Times, all the trade papers like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter - there are constantly pieces being written about why this nominee or, you know, this potential winner is problematic or why it shouldn't win. And so that's part of what's fueling the controversy.

There's also sometimes, you know, general public outrage. I think of something like the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which garnered a lot of momentum through social media and through the work of April Reign, who kind of shepherded that. And, you know, I think that that's a mixture of things.

And on top of that, you also have sometimes even the major players in Hollywood themselves getting involved. You know, Ava DuVernay has been, you know, very vocal about her criticisms of the academy, and other filmmakers and actors like her have been at the forefront of generating these controversies.

MARTIN: OK. One question I have is, are these genuinely issues for the most part that either the viewing public has or that critics and writers have who really spend a lot of time thinking about movies? Or are these basically campaigns by competing studios to trash each other's work?

HARRIS: It's hard to tell sometimes when the studios are at work and when they're not. I think more often than not, these criticisms are coming from a place of genuine concern about the state of the - of Hollywood, the state of moviemaking, and also the state of the world.

When it comes to especially something like a few years ago, when "Green Book" won, there was already concern before the movie won that this was, you know, a movie that had a lot of problems with it. It kind of glossed over race and racism. It was very much like something like "Driving Miss Daisy," which won a few years - like, 20, 25 years before. And so there's always - it brings to the surface a lot of social issues and things that we feel of the moment. And race has been top of the mind of the Academy Awards for the last several years now. So I think it's definitely - these are general grievances that are being aired out.

MARTIN: So a lot of people will remember that there's been a lot of focus on the lack of diversity at the Oscars and among Academy members in past years that - you referenced that, the #OscarsSoWhite discussion, which really did seem to arise from the viewing public. A lot of people just kind of got behind the hashtag because they were like, yeah, this is something that's been on my mind, too. So what's happening with that at this year's awards?

HARRIS: Well, this year's awards - I think #OscarsSoWhite has definitely helped this year's awards because when you look at the nominees this year, there's diversity all across the board. You have lots of women and women-led stories being nominated. A few of the best picture nominees, unlike last year, center on nonwhite, nonmale characters and stories. You have Chloe Zhao and Emerald Fennell, who are nominated for the - for best director in that category. And last year, there was a huge controversy because no woman was nominated that year.

So I think that this year, it's kind of tamped down a bit. We're not seeing that controversy so much around the diversity of the Oscars. I'm sure that could come up again in future years. But this year, it's less about that and more about different kinds of social issues aside from identity, aside from gender and race that are coming to the forefront of this year's Oscars.

MARTIN: Well, tell me one of them. Like, what's the - if you can - if you feel, like, comfortable ranking it this way, like, what do you think is the biggest controversy to emerge out of this year's awards? And where is it coming from?

HARRIS: Well, interestingly enough, the biggest one this year seems to be around "Nomadland," which was directed by Chloe Zhao. And she based this story off of a book, a heavily reported journalistic book that sort of took aim at Amazon and the way in which it might exploit its workers, the way in which especially older people tend to be stuck in these very low-paying jobs for this giant conglomerate and not getting the right treatment and the right benefits.

And her film has come under fire because it doesn't really deal with that in the same way. It kind of takes out the politics of Amazon. And while there are scenes of Frances McDormand's character Fern in the movie working at an Amazon workplace, it's not really about that. It's more about her sort of finding herself as this nomad, traveling from job to job. And people have taken issue with that.

MARTIN: And how has Chloe Zhao responded to those criticisms? Or has she?

HARRIS: Yes. She's framed it as a - this is a character study more so than a story that is focused on Amazon. She's also said that, you know, in every frame of the film, there is a commentary about the way in which we treat our - especially older people and our older generations, the way in which you kind of discard them.

So that's been her defense. And I think personally myself, I understand the critiques against "Nomadland" for those reasons. But I also think that if you look at it as - you have to take what's on the screen. And for me, I was very moved by "Nomadland." But that seems to be the biggest controversy at the Academy Awards this year.

MARTIN: Are there any other nominated films that are causing, you know, a stir or discussion at this year's awards?

HARRIS: It's been a pretty quiet year. I'd say the only other film that seemed to have gotten a lot of criticism - and this has come mostly from, you know, film critics and film writers and online conversations that I've seen - was "Promising Young Woman," which, you know, has been very, very hotly debated for the way in which it depicts violence against women, revenge stories.

But I also think that the film hasn't really had the same momentum as "Nomadland." So even if it weren't to win any awards or any of the major awards it's nominated for, I don't think we can necessarily point to that controversy being the main reason why. I think "Nomadland" just has so much build and such goodwill toward it that, you know, "Promising Young Woman," even if it had ended a different way, probably wouldn't have been at the forefront in the way "Nomadland" is.

MARTIN: And I think - this is the question I think some people might have. I know - I think I may have - is just, why does this matter? I mean, does it seem as though - does the audience really care about this, the audience writ large? Because, you know, American viewing audiences - really, international viewing audiences - are really different. And - or is this mainly a conversation that takes place among a select group of people who get paid to write about and talk about movies? Does it matter?

HARRIS: It matters in part because Hollywood is a tastemaker, and Hollywood is a major power player. I mean, just look at the way in which there are some Hollywood studios and Hollywood filmmakers who are saying they're not going to film anymore in Georgia until, you know, everything going on with the voting rights stuff - until that is fixed.

So I think that there's a lot of power in Hollywood. And also, like I said, the #OscarsSoWhite controversy has led to the Academy greatly increasing its membership and allowing different people and a wider range of people to be in the Academy who probably wouldn't have been 10 years ago. And so that's leading to a giant change. And I think, you know, it kind of is the blueprint, I think, for a lot of other industries to look toward as to how to create better inclusion and equity.

MARTIN: That is Aisha Harris, co-host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Aisha, thank you so much for being with us.

HARRIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIP HOP BEATS' "FLASHING LIGHTS INSTRUMENTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.