There were some major snubs and surprises when the Golden Globes nominees were announced earlier this week.
In a year with such critically acclaimed films as Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Melina Matsoukas’ Queen & Slim and Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, not a single female-directed film was nominated in the picture, director or screenplay categories. To date, Barbra Streisand is still the only woman to ever win a Golden Globe for directing, taking home the hardware for Yentl — 35 years ago.
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There were also a myriad of cultural question marks on this year’s list — did the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) actually forget to see When They See Us?!? Let’s just say this year’s nominations had many baffled.
But the awards nominations also opened up a larger conversation around what it means to be “American” versus “foreign” and just how well Hollywood does — or doesn’t — understand what multiculturalism and diversity look and sound like as well as how they should be reflected on screen.
One particular film that stands out in this conversation is The Farewell. While the female-led film wasn’t completely frozen out like many others, this American film was nominated in the Best Foreign Film category, drawing both confusion and critique.
Director Lulu Wang herself clearly emphasized on numerous occasions, including in a blog post she wrote for A24 earlier this summer, that The Farewell “is an AMERICAN film, challenging what it means to be American and who gets to claim Americanness.”
“That’s why I’m writing to you now, asking you to go see the film in theatres, because we need American movies like this to keep getting made,” she wrote.
Wang’s heartfelt, bittersweet film remains one of the most well-received this year, with a score of 99 on Rotten Tomatoes. The story follows a young woman as she travels to China from the United States so her family can gather for a staged wedding following her grandmother’s terminal cancer diagnosis. Filled with universal themes of love, pain and grief, it is an American story — even though it is not being recognized as such.
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That is because when it comes to awards, language is treated as the qualifier of a movie’s cultural leanings. According to the Hollywood Reporter, if a film includes “more than 50 per cent non-English dialogue,” it is deemed foreign by the HFPA.
Last month, when Nigeria’s entry for the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film category, Lionheart, was disqualified because it contained only 11 minutes of non-English dialogue, it further intensified the debate on language as the qualifier for a foreign film.
Subsequently, the Best Foreign-Language Film category has been changed ahead of the 2020 awards to Best International Feature Film, with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences saying the reference to “foreign” is “outdated within the global filmmaking community.” Clearly, Hollywood is grappling with multiculturalism, but herein lies part of the problem: the language we use and the “othering” of cultures.
Wang is pushing Hollywood and viewers to broaden their conception of what it means to be American.
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“To me, [The Farewell is] a very American story because I’m American,” she told Vanity Fair in July.
I completely agree. What makes a film “American” is the filmmaker, not the language in which it’s told. That is why I see The Farewell as an American story — because the storyteller is American.
In this same way, I see Gurinder Chadha’s melange of films — from Bhaji on the Beach, Bend It Like Beckham and Bride & Prejudice to the recent critically acclaimed Blinded by the Light (also snubbed by the Globes) — as very much British tales, even though they feature primarily South Asian casts, dialogue, music and cultural commentary.
It is the same way I see my stories as Canadian, even when others don’t.
As someone who has sat through a spectrum of questions, from the seemingly innocent to the territorial and downright condescending — questions like “Where are you from? … No, but where are you really from?” — since I was a young girl, defending my nationalism can be exhausting and belittling. Over time, these microaggressions can make one feel “othered” and less than.
I am Canadian. And yes, I am an immigrant, if that’s what the underlying ask is. From where? I immigrated from England when I was four years old, my father and mother from India and Kenya before that.
Sometimes, that placates my interrogators, feeling a superior satisfaction that my journey to Canada does not span the same generations of Canadiana as theirs. I doubt most people with white skin are put through the same line of questioning nearly as often as those who look and sound “different,” as innocent as it may seem.
But it matters because it speaks to a subconscious view of what we feel is “foreign.” Neither my skin colour nor the way I speak should dictate how I am perceived within my country, but it does — and it always will.
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Ironically, a way to creating deeper cultural understanding is through art, such as film. It can have a beautiful and profound way of exposing us to new experiences and cultures, broadening our understanding of different people and their beliefs and traditions.
Through film, we are also able to explore the duality of identity — following our individual pursuits and passions alongside family traditions and customs — with the understanding that our lives are not a dichotomy but, rather, a dance of negotiations.
The Farewell does that, but the way we celebrate it is just as important in propelling the multiculturalism conversation forward in a positive direction.
The words we use to describe our fellow citizens matter — deeming them “foreign” is not an embrace of inclusivity.
Why are we willing to accept the mob tales of Italian-Americans in The Irishman as American but not the Chinese-Americans grieving in The Farewell? Both are the fabric of American culture, and dismissing one on the virtue of language alone shows a deep misunderstanding of the broad spectrum of immigrant experiences across the decades.
As Wang poignantly wrote about her experience in making her American film: “I want more filmmakers to have faith in their own vision and fight to tell their stories without compromising on the specifics. I want The Farewell to be a case study in how it pays to tell specific stories from unique perspectives.”
There is nothing foreign about that dream.
Meera Estrada is a cultural commentator and co-host of kultur’D! on Global News Radio 640 Toronto.