Column: Netflix isn’t disrupting anything when it comes to Oscar nominations and diversity

And now for something really "disruptive": Jesse Plemons, left, Ray Romano, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in "The Irishman" on Netflix.
And now for something really “disruptive”: Jesse Plemons, left, Ray Romano, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in “The Irishman” on Netflix.

What is the point of Netflix if the year that it receives more Oscar nominations than any other studio is the year that we return to the status quo of no female directing nominees and exactly one person of color nominated in the acting categories?

Seriously, is this the brave new world of streaming? Where press releases go out daily about the wildly “diverse” television creators drafted by Netflix (and to a lesser extent Amazon) but the Oscar-nominated Netflix films come from Martin Scorsese and Noah Baumbach?

This isn’t changing the film industry; this is gaming the film industry, leveraging the grand traditions of awards season — such a coincidence that the best films are so often about white guys and their myriad troubles — and giving them a double dose. (In the case of “The Two Popes,” quite literally.)

Jonathan Pryce, left, and  Anthony Hopkins  in a scene from “The Two Popes.”
(Peter Mountain/Netflix)

Just last year, it seemed as if Netflix were determined to both win and change the nature of a best picture. With “Roma,” the streamer put its money where its mouth was, insisting that Alfonso Cuarón’s quiet portrait of a Mexico City housekeeper was powerful enough to transcend American awards bias against all sorts of things, including subtitles, black and white films and movies about women.

Which it almost did; “Roma” won lots of awards, including Oscars for foreign language film, cinematography and directing, but the best picture went to the far more traditional “Green Book.”


This year, well ... I guess if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

For the Netflix-phobic among us, there might be some comfort in the knowledge that there is a force greater than the world domination-seeking streamer. But as that force appears to be a set of often quite specific if unspoken perimeters of “greatness,” that comfort is of the decidedly cold variety.

If you don’t think such perimeters exist, consider that the best picture category was increased to a possible 10 only after “The Dark Knight” failed to get a nomination due to perceived comic-book bias. Last year, “Black Panther” broke that glass ceiling; this year, “Joker” overcame a lot of early outrage to receive more nominations than any other film.

So at least one sort of bias has been admitted and overcome.

“Joker” was not the only critically divisive film on the best picture list — “Jojo Rabbit,” which was also panned as often as it was praised, made the cut, while critical and audience hits including “The Farewell,” “Hustlers,” “Knives Out” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” were left out. All of which revolve around women and were made, with the exception of “Knives Out,” by female directors. Not that we should read anything into this.

Meanwhile, “Harriet,” the kind of historical epic that generally pleases motion picture academy voters (and one that defies cultural conventions predating film itself), got dinged in many reviews for being too formulaic. This is despite Cynthia Erivo’s astonishing, and Oscar-nominated, performance as a former slave turned verifiable action hero — a female character that somehow never made it to the center of a film before. It was never even discussed as a possibility for best picture, despite there being 10 slots available.

If only filmmaker Kasi Lemmons had thought to follow Harriet in a single shot through a world war complete with cameos by British heartthrobs past and present; if only Tubman had been forced to have imaginary conversations with best friend Jefferson Davis. If only “Harriet” had been made and marketed by Netflix.

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in "Harriet."
(Glen Wilson / Focus Features)

Please do not willfully misunderstand. I’m not saying that “1917,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “The Irishman,” “Marriage Story” and “The Two Popes” are not great and/or awards-worthy films; I’m just saying that “formulaic” often wins big at the Oscars, but only when it’s a certain formula.

Nor am I blaming Netflix for the monochromatic tone of this year’s Oscars or for its overwhelming desire to win the film industry’s greatest award even as it attempts to completely destroy its business model and audience culture.

The way in which Netflix went about the Oscar race this year — no female directors, very traditional movies that focus almost exclusively on the personal illumination and/or transformation of white men — is disheartening, but not as disheartening as the level with which the streamer was rewarded for it. (“Dolemite Is My Name,” the lone major Netflix awards contender not centered on a white man, did not receive any nominations. And the streamer’s Cannes Film Festival acquisition, “Atlantics,” directed by Mati Diop, a French woman of Senegalese descent, was not nominated in the international feature category.)

Despite a growing and diversifying Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and small gains for international films and documentaries, this year’s Oscar nominees feel more like a retrenchment than a reflection of the narrative expansion the film industry claims to champion.

Alfonso Cuarón directs a scene on the set of "Roma."
(Carlos Somonte/Netflix )

So here we are. With “Roma,” Netflix most certainly helped make room in the best picture field for “Parasite,” which is a very good thing, but this year it’s brought nothing new, and much that is old, to the table. And Oscar voters have embraced it whole-heartedly.

Which is not to say that old is bad. That this is the first time Jonathan Pryce has been nominated for an Oscar (for Netflix’s “The Two Popes”) is absolutely shocking, and one of the most egregious omissions on Oscar morning was that of Robert De Niro from the lead acting category.

How on earth can anyone consider “The Irishman” a candidate for best picture without celebrating De Niro’s (as ever) tremendous performance? If he wasn’t also a producer of “The Irishman,” I wouldn’t blame him if he skipped the whole thing — who wants to sit through another evening of being praised as if you were dead instead of a very much still-working actor who gave a tremendous performance in a best picture favorite?

But no doubt De Niro will be there, supporting his film, his costars and, yes, Netflix, and after much complaining about the narrow demographic representation in too many categories, so will the rest of us. Declining ratings notwithstanding, the Oscar telecast remains the second-biggest live event on television, and for a reason: The Academy Awards matter.

Which is why all the parsing and analysis should not be misconstrued as cancel culture. No one who cares about film in any way wants the Oscars gone. But if Netflix is going to disrupt things, it would be nice if that disruption extended to the way we define “best.”