Jade Begay · February 12, 2020

The Academy Was Made for White Men: Here’s How Taika Waititi Made a Difference

During the 2020 Oscars on Sunday night, there were sure moments that not only broke the status quo, but allowed lights of hope to shine into a space that largely upholds institutional racism and sexism.

In the lead up to the 92nd Academy Awards, there was growing  concern about how the 2020 Oscars would play out. Multiple issues had already begun to emerge during “Oscar campaign season.” First, there was the controversy around Parasite, directed by Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, and how some American audiences were not embracing the film as Best Picture criteria because it was not in English. Then, there was the issue concerning representation of women directors, such as Greata Gerwig, director of “Little Women,” or Melina Matsoukas, director of “Queen and Slim,” and how many felt that these women were cheated out of a Best Director nomination. 

Ultimately, both of these issues stem from the fact that the Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts and the Oscars are still so white and weren’t created to be inclusive to people other than white males.  And this definitely isn’t the first time the Oscars were criticized for their lack of inclusivity. 

All of that said, and despite the frustratingly slow pace of change within the Academy and the Oscars, during the 2020 Oscars on Sunday night, there were sure moments that not only broke the status quo, but allowed lights of hope to shine into a space that largely upholds institutional racism and sexism. 

First, Taika Waititi made history as the first Maori Academy Award Winner for “Best Screenplay Adaptation” for Jojo Rabbit. And if that wasn’t enough to make many Indigenous folx watching tear up, he dedicated the Oscar win to Indigenous Youth throughout the world, making a special shout out to those working in the arts.  On national TV, Waititi asserted Indigenous Peoples’ rich, ancestral connection to storytelling saying, “We are the original storytellers.” 

Shortly after Taika’s momentous win, he rose yet again before a national audience, taking the stage for a second time  to introduce the winners of the Academy’s honorary prize. This time, he conducted a land acknowledgment:

“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.”

Without question, this moment and Taika’s land acknowledgement was not only a significant first on the Oscars live show, but this moment mattered

To be sure, there’s plenty of necessary and critical dialogue within Indigenous communities about land acknowledgment and its effectiveness as a tool for cultural and narrative change. It’s important to note that while land acknowledgements certainly do not equal reparations or won’t heal generations of trauma caused by colonization, they are a productive first step and a tool for showing respect to land and people, and they do help in combating erasure– a symptom of colonization that perpetuates misconceptions and exploitation of Indigenous lands and people. 

“During the 2020 Oscars on Sunday night, there were sure moments that not only broke the status quo, but allowed lights of hope to shine into a space that largely upholds institutional racism and sexism.” 

In making this land acknowledgment on national TV and in a room that was full with some of the most influential people in media and Hollywood, Taika may have created a ripple effect that will last for generations and Oscars to come. We can only hope that what he modeled at this year’s awards show will set a precedent for Hollywood going forward. In the meantime, Indigenous people are boldly shaping our own stories, and Taika’s Oscar moments remind us of the power of claiming our space in that work.

Still, it remains true that the Oscars were created by white men for white men, and like all institutions that have this type of legacy, change does not happen overnight. Yet thanks to creatives like Taika Watiti and Bong Joon Ho, who swept the Oscars with four of the most prestigious awards (including best picture and best director for Parasite), and also thanks to the people behind the scenes who supported and invested into these creatives with resources and with networks, young and emerging Indigenous and POC filmmakers can now see people like them reflected on that stage and receiving high honors. Indigenous, POC, and other diverse filmmakers can continue to create,having affirmation and more faith that they too can make it in these worlds that were meant to shut us out. 

Jade Begay
by   Jade Begay

Jade Begay, Climate Justice Campaign Director, is Diné and Tesuque Pueblo of New Mexico. Begay leads NDN Collective’s climate justice campaign work and brings extensive experience working in climate justice movement spaces throughout Turtle Island and within Indigenous communities across the globe. She has also worked as a multimedia producer, filmmaker and communications professional working in non-profit and Indigenous organizations. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Film and Video and a Master of Arts degree in Environmental Leadership.

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