There are few people better equipped to offer an alternative vision of what Hollywood — or really, the world — might look like than the singer and actress Janelle Monáe, whose work melds music and near-future science fiction. She delivered on Sunday night, kicking off the show with a sharp musical number that included black “Little Women”; black, female World War I soldiers; and Monáe herself as first a black, female Mister Rogers and later a flower-bedecked cult leader in the style of Ari Aster’s horror movie “Midsommar.”
More than any of the lyrics she wrote for the occasion, the spectacle made Monáe’s point: This is what our entertainment could be, if we want it. “Now, y’all know this is my house, so that means you must do as I say,” Monáe declared before organizing the audience into a hypnotic singalong. For the length of her performance, the members of the academy seemed willing to submit to her.
To be sure, Hollywood’s relationship to liberal politics and diversity is often more sadomasochistic than anything else: Academy members take a scolding for just how badly they’ve failed to live up to their stated ideals before heading off to sin again. And along with the pleasant surprises, this year’s ceremony included the usual mix of ritual flogging and airy gestures toward inclusion and change.
Chris Rock bluntly told the audience that the best director lineup was missing “vaginas” and cracked that “Mahershala [Ali] has two Oscars. You know what that means when the cops pull him over? Nothing.” Sigourney Weaver, Brie Larson and Gal Gadot introduced Irish composer and conductor Eimear Noone, who became the first woman to conduct the Oscars orchestra — for the length of a medley, at least. When Jane Fonda, who has been getting herself arrested to protest inaction on climate change, told the audience “Nothing’s more important than raising awareness, right?” it wasn’t entirely clear if she was being sincere or a little bit sarcastic.
But those fig leaves and groaners came on a night when Oscar voters chose to reward a movie that proves diversity can serve purposes other than self-congratulation.
South Korean director Bong Joon-ho won best director and best original screenplay for his movie “Parasite,” which also won both best international feature film and best picture. It was the first time a film in a foreign language has taken top honors at the Academy Awards. “Parasite’s” victories felt good: Bong’s joy, desire to share credit with his cast, praise for his fellow directors and exuberant declaration that “I’m ready to drink tonight” are all very easy to root for. The movie itself is a much trickier and darker story.
Rather than offering us a fable of noble suffering, “Parasite” tells a dark fairy tale in which the characters are alternately scoundrels, fools and snobs. The movie follows Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), a poor but talented young South Korean man, as he takes a job as an English tutor for a wealthy family, then persuades his employers to hire his family members into the household as well. The deceptions that get the Kims their jobs have real consequences, both for their employers and for the Kims themselves. By the end of the movie, they’ve done terrible things in an attempt to secure their positions.
You can’t beat capitalism, Bong’s film suggests, just play by its rules and hope for the best. Too often, Hollywood bows to that logic, shelving its bolder aspirations in order to stay afloat. But both “Parasite” and Monáe served up reminders that when you make movies with casts that look very different from Hollywood’s typical offerings, you can liberate nonwhite and female actors to be rascals and monsters — and to be fully human.