After controversies about the lack of representation of racial minorities at the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has decided to implement strict rules regarding what films are eligible for an award. Beginning with the 2024 Academy Awards, in order to be nominated for an Oscar, a film will have to have a prescribed number of women, racial minorities, LGBT people, or people with disabilities in two of four categories: “Onscreen Representation, Themes, and Narratives”; “Creative Leadership and Project Team”; “Industry Access and Opportunities”; and “Audience Development” (for a detailed breakdown, click here). Not only will this threaten artistic freedom, it will also likely discourage directors from making films on overlooked but important historical topics, like the Armenian Genocide and communist crimes.
The first category poses a particular threat to artistic freedom, as it will dictate the subject matter filmmakers will tackle. But often the problem with minority characters in Hollywood productions is not so much one of absence as misrepresentation. For example, there are characters with disabilities in most of the Farrelly brothers’ popular comedies. However, the fact that the Farrellys use blindness (as in Dumb and Dumber), intellectual disabilities (There’s Something About Mary), and schizophrenia (Me, Myself, and Irene) as punchlines is dehumanizing.
As a result of the new rules, filmmakers will be less motivated to deal with certain topics that have been overlooked or consciously avoided for political reasons. There are many episodes in history that deserve greater representation on the silver screen, but only some of them comply with the Academy’s new policies. For instance, while there are many fine films about the Holocaust, there has yet to be a single great film about the Armenian Genocide. While well-intentioned, Ararat and The Promise were artistic duds. In the 1930s, MGM bowed to Turkish pressure and withdrew a planned adaptation of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, Franz Werfel’s classic novel about the Armenian Genocide. Although there was a low-budget 1982 adaptation of the book with an obscure cast and crew, it was poorly received and seen by few outside the Armenian-American community. Today, it would be not the Turkish embassy but the Academy that would discourage an ambitious filmmaker from translating to film a story set in the Levant with white perpetrators and white victims.
Another canonical work of twentieth-century literature that has yet to see a masterful portrayal on the big screen is The Master and Margarita. Mikhail Bulgakov’s fable about Satan’s visit to 1930s Moscow is a witty satire of Stalinism and communist atheist propaganda. In 2005, there was an eight-hour miniseries based on Bulgakov’s book shown on television in Russia, where nearly a third of the country watched it. It was moderately well-received; however, relatively few outside Russia saw it. As one of the novel’s main characters is a talking cat and one plot element is an ointment that allows people to fly, the novel is often more magical than realist and would require the special effects available only in Hollywood. And there are many other literary classics about communism—such as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, in which a dyed-in-the wool Stalinist is shocked to find himself in prison as an enemy of the state, or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which is to the gulag what Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man is to Auschwitz—that deserve adaptations.
In the West, relatively few films about communism have been made. The few exceptions, however, were usually well-intentioned but critically panned, such as Andy Garcia’s Cuba-themed The Lost City or 2017’s Bitter Harvest, an artistically disappointing love story set amid the Holodomor, Stalin’s manmade genocidal famine in Ukraine. One pleasant surprise was last year’s popular HBO miniseries Chernobyl. British screenwriter Karla Marie Sweet complained that Chernobyl’s cast was all-white. While some have pointed out that one black man did work at the infamous nuclear power plant (as did some employees from the Soviet Union’s Central Asian republics), her comment was widely ridiculed. However, with the Academy’s new policies, many filmmakers will think twice before adapting one of the countless dramatic stories that took place from 1917 to 1991 between East Berlin and Vladivostok.
The Academy has stated that it will address diversity requirements in several specialty categories, including Best International Feature Film, later. Perhaps this would be a better place to address diversity. Although South Korea’s Parasite won the award this year, and two films by Iran’s Asghar Farhadi won in the past decade, this is perhaps the most Eurocentric cultural award—save for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But the fact that Europe has been well-represented in this category does not mean that European filmmakers have run out of important things to say. Instead, it would perhaps be better to mandate that a certain proportion of nominated films come from Asia, the Middle East, Latin America (where there are countries like Argentina and Uruguay with virtually all-white populations), or Africa, a country with a young but booming film industry that is little-known in the West (Nigeria is now home to “Nollywood”).
At a time of declining readership worldwide, and because of the magical connection hundreds of millions have to the movies, film is perhaps the most effective medium with which to educate people about history. Certain topics, such as the Armenian Genocide or communist crimes, deserve a definitive epic on the scale of Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. But ironically, the Academy’s new diversity rules will make it even less likely for such topics to receive the silver screen treatment they deserve.
Filip Mazurczak is a translator and journalist whose work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Crisis Magazine, European Conservative, and Tygodnik Powszechny.
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