Unraveling the Oscars’ Foreign-Language-Film Debate

The newly rebranded Best International Film award calls attention to how unfair the Academy’s rules are for filmmakers outside the U.S. and Europe.

Netflix / Everett Collection

Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences welcomed into its ranks a record 928 new voters, many of whom were women, people of color, and members younger than the institution’s average. The move was part of a larger response to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign from a couple of years prior that called attention to the glaring lack of racial diversity among the awards’ nominees. In another bid for relevance last year, the Academy introduced a new “popular film” category, before reversing the decision after a public outcry. Now, a year later, the Academy is undercutting its various inclusion initiatives with quick fixes that only highlight how entrenched its biases are.

Starting with the 2020 ceremony, the “Best Foreign-Language Film” award will be known as the “Best International Feature Film” prize. While the shift away from outdated nomenclature signals a desire to broaden voters’ horizons, the Academy undoes this small gesture with a major oversight: The rules for a film’s eligibility have stayed the same. That means movies that wouldn’t have qualified under the old requirements—at least 50 percent of the dialogue must be in a language other than English—will also not qualify now, even if they are technically “international.” By retaining the language requirement, the Academy is calling attention to how its rules are fundamentally stacked against filmmakers from countries outside the United States and parts of Europe.

At the center of this new debate is Netflix’s Lionheart, a Nigerian movie about a woman struggling to keep her family’s business afloat. Though some characters speak in Igbo, the film’s dialogue is largely in the country’s official language—which, because of Nigeria’s colonial history, is English. Lionheart, then, is ineligible for the Best International Film category, despite being an international movie shot in the most populous country in Africa. Of Lionheart’s disqualification, the director and star Genevieve Nnaji tweeted, “This movie represents the way we speak as Nigerians. This includes English which acts as a bridge between the 500+ languages spoken in our country; thereby making us #OneNigeria.” She added in a follow-up, “We did not choose who colonized us. As ever, this film and many like it, is proudly Nigerian.”

Nnaji’s tweets built on a question posed by the director Ava DuVernay, who pondered on Twitter whether the foreign-language requirement of the Best International Film category effectively served as a ban on all Nigerian films in the country’s official language. Indeed, that paradox would apply to any number of Britain’s former colonies, many of which could technically compete for the Oscars’ other awards but, given the dominance of Hollywood, would have their best shot of winning in an international category. (Lionheart, for example, is Nigeria’s first-ever submission for an Oscar, which makes its disqualification particularly jarring.)

In a statement to Deadline, the Academy’s International Feature Film executive committee co-chair Larry Karaszewski referred to the situation as “less of a controversy, and more of a misunderstanding.” Karaszewski went on to note that there may have been a “misconception,” but that the category’s eligibility criteria had remained the same. He added, “If you’re submitting for something as important as an Academy Award, I would think you should look at the rules.”

But the rules themselves are, ultimately, the issue. By conflating Foreign Language and International, the Academy enforces a narrow view of countries outside the United States and obscures the different linguistic traditions of people around the world. Some filmmakers, such as Nnaji, work in English because their home was colonized by Britain; others may do so for less concrete reasons. Still, that doesn’t mean any of these works are less authentically Nigerian, or Guyanese, or Zimbabwean. Most often, artists from outside Europe are already overlooked by the Academy, which has historically prioritized work from Italian, British, and French directors. As Vulture’s Nate Jones notes of the “Best Foreign-Language Film” category, “The trophy has gone to a European country 83 percent of the time, a ratio even the most Fellini-adoring cinephiles might admit is a little overboard.”

By keeping its language requirement, AMPAS has essentially decided that films like Lionheart might be international, but they still aren’t foreign enough to be considered for a trophy. A similar rigidity in thinking has shaped industry-wide perceptions of the Chinese American director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, which tells the story of a young woman who travels back to China upon learning of her grandmother’s terminal-cancer diagnosis. Though the protagonist was primarily raised in the United States and speaks English, much of the movie is in Mandarin. As a result, many producers were confused about whether Wang’s film was American or Chinese. “I would say, ‘I’m American, so this is an American film, because it’s an American perspective,’” Wang told my colleague Shirley Li earlier this year. “But then I would say, ‘Well, this is how I want to cast it, and this is the language that everybody speaks, and this is the food that everybody eats,’ [and] they’d say, ‘Oh, but that’s not American.’”

Wang also weighed in on the Lionheart exclusion this week. Building on DuVernay’s tweet, the Farewell filmmaker raised a series of questions the Academy has yet to publicly grapple with: “This calls attention to the delineation of ‘foreign film’ vs ‘foreign-language film.’ Which makes more sense? Can a ‘foreign film’ be in OUR language (i.e. English)? Can a domestic (i.e American) film be in a foreign language? What does it mean to be foreign? And to be American?”

These are important questions with no obvious answers. But the Academy—as an institution that models itself as the arbiter of great cinema—should be trying to wrestle with them, or to at least expand its old definitions to better recognize the art being made around the world. When accepting the 2019 Foreign-Language Film Oscar for Roma, Alfonso Cuarón poked fun at the name of the award: The Mexican director noted that he’d grown up watching “foreign-language films” such as Citizen Kane and The Godfather, a reminder of how subjective such terms can be. Rebranding the category was an easy solution to that conundrum. But finding a more holistic way of evaluating and celebrating films telling non-American, non-Western stories requires upending the very idea that English belongs to America. Until the Academy is willing to do that, it is “international” filmmakers—and audiences—who will bear the brunt of the disappointment.