‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Cleaned Up At The Oscars, As Hollywood Sweeps Its Issues Under The Rug

'Bohemian Rhapsody' is the film Hollywood would celebrate, a box-ticking of diversity that adds little to the table.

Rami Malek accepts the Best Actor Award for Bohemian Rhapsody at the 2019 Oscars

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Despite multiple controversies, Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody has swept this year’s Academy Awards, winning four of the five Oscars it was nominated for — the most of any film this year.

The film won for Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing (which are not the same thing), Best Film Editing and Best Actor, only losing out on Best Picture to Green Book, a bio-pic with its own set of controversies.

While making an obscene US $840 million worldwide — in Australia, it’s currently our sixth-highest grossing film of all-time — the film has received mixed reviews and was mostly directed by alleged child abuser Bryan Singer.

Singer was fired during production due to turbulent on-set behaviour, just weeks before decades of child sexual abuse allegations against him went public. While Dexter Fletcher took over as director, Singer is still credited — though he was not present at the awards, nor was he addressed or thanked in any of the speeches.

In addition, the film was criticised for its portrayal of Mercury’s sexuality by LGBTIQ critics, who said the film erased his queerness beyond a few perfunctory scenes which lacked depth or an understanding of how Mercury’s sensuality was integral to his life and work.

“The result is far more hurtful than your average unconsciously homophobic film,” writes Aja Romano for Vox. “Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie that consciously tries to position a gay man at its centre while strategically disengaging with the “gay” part as much as it can.”

“…It strips Mercury of a part of his identity that was as vital to his success as his four-octave vocal range. After all, it was his choice to live at the crossroads of mainstream culture and queer culture, to subvert the cultural exploitation of queerness by transcending it and embracing his personal and sexual power, that made him who he was.”

Before Bohemian Rhapsody came out, it was unclear whether the film would detail Mercury’s HIV+ status and eventual death. While it is mentioned, it is a-historical in a couple of accounts.

Firstly, the timeline is wrong (Mercury learnt of his status in 1987, not 1985, where the film ends). More importantly, the film completely fails to address the explicit and aggressive homophobia that Mercury encountered routinely throughout his career.

To be HIV+ and a queer man in the 1980s was to live as a social leper and in danger. As The Conversation points out, fear and misunderstanding about HIV and AIDS caused mass panic while the US government refused to research the disease, and the UK passed a law declaring that homosexuality shouldn’t be promoted. Just because he was a rock star, Mercury wasn’t above it: in the US, audiences threw razors on stage during his performances in an attempt to get him to shave off his famous (and aggressively queer) moustache.

Add to that a difficult press circuit where Rami Malek, who was awarded Best Actor for his toothy portrayal of Mercury, neglected to address the elephant in the room and seemed to struggle to answer questions around the singer’s sexuality, and there was a sense that film hadn’t just missed the mark, but failed to see it completely.

So when the film won four awards, people were pissed — particularly because all acceptance speeches acted as if the film had no director, rather than address it head on.

A Not-So Careful (But Very Considered) Edit

While Best Editing isn’t normally the type of category that causes fights and anger, people were fairly incredulous that Bohemian Rhapsody was even nominated, let alone the winner.

If you’re confused, maybe check out this scene, which features more cuts than a hairdresser’s the last day of summer school holidays.

Or this glorious six-second transition.

The Guardian‘s Oscars live blog put it most succinctly, with Stuart Heritage’s update just readingBohemian Rhapsody wins best editing. What the hell is going on?”. Then again, some of its edits were pretty impressive.

Malek’s win for Best Actor was also frustrating. Putting aside whether you enjoyed his performance, Bohemian‘s misrepresentation of Mercury begs the question of whether the role should be celebrated as exemplary.

Add into that the repeated trend of queer roles being used as Oscar-bait for straight actors regardless of whether they, like Malek, seem to have anything other than a surface-level understanding of their character’s sexuality and gender, and you’ve got a win that’s more weighted than it might originally seem.

In his acceptance speech, Malek referenced Mercury’s sexuality, but called him “gay” when he was known to have relationships with men and women. Since gay can be a shorthand for anything in the LGBTIQ umbrella, it may seem like semantics. But within Bohemian‘s context, it landed as yet another moment of erasure, where Mercury was simplified to fit within a blockbuster.

Where To From Here?

Looking at the scorecard, the 2019 Oscars feel split in the middle. Three years after #OscarsSoWhite launched, plenty of representative milestones were made this year, largely thanks to Black Panther‘s three awards.

Black Panther marks the first Marvel film to win an Academy Award — and, with Spider-Man: Into The Spider-verse winning Best Animated Film, it seems that superhero films are finally being taken seriously.

But, more importantly, Ruth Carter’s and Hannah Beachler’s respective awards for Black Panther‘s costume design and production design were the categories’ first wins ever for African American women. Before the 2019 Oscars, only one black woman had won an award for a non-acting category.

In addition, Mahershala Ali’s and Regina King’s Best Supporting Actor/Actress wins were noteworthy, while Spike Lee’s long-overdue first non-honorary Oscar is a sure sign that the voting shakeup is making a difference, as was the love for Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.

Malek’s win as Mercury was historic, too. He’s the first non-white Best Actor since 2006, and moments of his speech were incredibly moving. Malek spoke about relating to Mercury as a first-generation immigrant, and that “the fact that I’m celebrating him and this story with you tonight is proof that we’re longing for stories like this”.

Which we are, but not like Bohemian Rhapsody — a film that ticks boxes when it could colour them in.

It’s the same with Best Picture winner Green Book, a bio-pic about jazz musician Dr. Donald Shirley with a nearly all-white acceptance crew and no consultation with Shirley’s family, who have called the film  “a symphony of lies”.

Like The Danish Girl, Dallas Buyer’s Club or Crash before them, Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book are hollow works that have little interest in understanding the communities they pilfer for entertainment and sanitised takeaways about the evils of discrimination.

Compare them to 2016’s Best Picture Moonlight, a film that shines with the power of something made ‘For Us, By Us’ — anything else feels washed out, painted in platitudes.

They’re a step back among those made forward, and we’re getting tired of the dance.

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and would also end his acceptance speech with “Lady Gaga!” if given the chance. Follow him on Twitter.