Once Again, Hollywood Failed To Reckon With Its Past

lily gladstone 2024 oscars

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When Emma Stone won the best actress Oscar for her role in Poor Things, it felt like a mistake. This was Lily Gladstone’s award. For many reasons. Ky Stewart and Nick Bhasin discuss the Academy’s misstep.

NB: What was your reaction when they announced who won the best actress award?

KS: I think I can best describe it as immediate disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Poor Things and I think Emma was sensational in it. But when it comes down to best actress, I think Lily Gladstone’s performance will be felt for many more years to come. 

NB: I was pretty angry. Like, probably, Emma Stone herself, I was expecting Lily Gladstone to win. They’d won the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild award and it seemed like a lock. Not just because of the opportunity to do something historic (they would have been the first Indigenous person to win an acting Academy Award) and take a huge step forward, but just because they gave the best performance. Of course, that’s subjective. And I thought Emma Stone was great in Poor Things and gracious in her win. (There are some showbiz-insidery theories as to why Lily lost here.)

KS: I agree. Sure, Emma was great in a quirky movie that will probably have a cult following in a decade’s time but Lily gave us something so substantial, so powerful, and so grounding that it was truly shocking she didn’t win. It felt like an even bigger blow to have members of the Osage Nation there to support Lily and the film which ultimately lost every award it was nominated for at the Oscars.

NB: What do you think it would have meant for Lily Gladstone to win?

KS: It’s hard to overstate the power of Lily winning the Oscar. The first Native American woman to be nominated for best actress and could’ve been the first to win. There’s been quite a critical view of awards shows recently because of their inability to acknowledge people of colour or balance the gender gap between nominees and winners so it felt like the Oscars had a real moment to award someone for both genuine merit and significance and they decided against it. 

NB: After the #OscarsSoWhite reckoning in 2015, the Academy promised to make changes, including a diversity requirement for best picture nominees. And even though things have changed, it can feel like nothing has when something like this happens. To make matters worse, we still have geniuses like Elon Musk calling it a “woke contest” and whatever this person is complaining about.

KS: How do you think Lily’s loss sits within the long history of problematic portrayals of Native Americans in movies?

NB: Well, I am very much into justice when it comes to movies. I love movies. I love old movies.

KS: You are a lover of movies, yes. 

NB: Because I love movies, I’ve had no choice but to love and appreciate old movies, products of their time, which participated in highly questionable, if not downright criminal, practices when it came to marginalised people. I don’t tend to want to persecute the people who made those movies or condemn the movies themselves. I prefer to see things rectified now.

KS: I think that’s why I tend to not watch many old movies or look too far back because not only will I feel uncomfortable by some of the representations but because I’m far more interested in how we make movies now and who we allow to tell stories. 

NB: That is understandable. Also, because I love movies, I tend to prefer to see that rectification and evolution happen within films of high quality. So, to me, this was a slam dunk. Killers of the Flower Moon was certainly flawed, perhaps fundamentally, in its inability to avoid its own white lens. But I still thought it was a really good movie. And I thought Lily was really good in it. This was the perfect opportunity for “Hollywood” to make the right choice. And they blew it.

KS: Exactly. It felt like there was this weight resting on the shoulders of the Academy Awards that had been building up for years — a weight that might be somewhat lifted when Lily Gladstone won. So for her to lose felt not only anticlimactic but also like a bit of a punch in the gut. It made me think: what else do we have to do as Indigenous people to be recognised for our stories? Especially when we tellthose stories with such power and stoicism.

NB: When I watched Killers of the Flower Moon, I felt that weight you’re talking about. I felt it even more acutely when Lily was nominated. It feels silly, but I thought, “This might help make things right, just a little bit.” The movie is partially about Hollywood’s complicity in how it severely butchered the telling of Indigenous stories. The stage was set! 

It felt like we were going to finally move on from things like the super white Dances with Wolves, which won best picture and director in 1991 (and, to be fair, is seen as a step forward in Indigenous portrayal on film). It felt like we were moving on from the booing of Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Oscars ceremony, where she declined, on Marlon Brando’s behalf, to accept the best actor award for his role in The Godfather, citing the “treatment of American Indians today by the film industry”.

That treatment includes the practice of red face, “Cowboys and Indians”, horrendous stereotyping, story after story positioning Native Americans as the enemy of righteous white people. 

The Academy officially apologised to Sacheen Littlefeather in 2022 (there were also some questions about her heritage — she may have been Native Mexican, rather than American).

KS: Do you think that the Oscars are important?  

NB: Sometimes I have to remind myself that this is an awards show where people working in show business give each other prizes. No one’s curing cancer.

KS: Unfortunately they do not, although I’m sure they’ve cured cancer in Barbieland. 

NB: Let’s hope so. But I do think that movies matter. And the prizes we give them matter — they assign cultural value.

KS: These are the films that help us make sense of the world around us. They help us navigate our own lives so the awards they win do send a signal of what’s worthy and what’s not. 

NB: Right. So even when they get it “wrong”, they’re still showing us what is important. Granted, it’s what’s important to an elite group of people within the film industry, but they’re the decision-makers. They’re part of the community that produces movies. So their choices are hard to dismiss.

KS: Exactly, the powers that be who decide which movies get what awards are the same who greenlight scripts or pump money into productions so if the films that win are from a resoundingly white focal point, it’s hard not to see how stories similar to those will be made ad nauseum. 

NB: It definitely makes me feel like the reports of the Academy evolving past its traditionally conservative voting habits were greatly exaggerated.

KS: I remember when La La Land won several awards and it shocked me because I didn’t think it was that great of a movie. Then when the mishap occurred where it was incorrectly announced it had won best picture over Moonlight, for a brief period I thought, ‘How can a movie about two white people dancing be more significant than a story of a Black drug dealer helping to raise a young gay Black kid and navigate his life?’ It felt like all the film bros had won before the mistake was corrected and Moonlight was revealed as the true winner. What I guess I’m saying is that Moonlight’s significance to the culture, and its place in society, was only really acknowledged because it had won the Oscar. 

NB: So where do we go from here? 

KS: How does the Academy reckon with the fact that it still won’t give awards to Native actors, even when they’ve undeniably delivered the best performance of the year? 

NB: Yeah, this was a blow. A Native American person just gave an enormous performance in an enormous movie and it wasn’t enough to win. So it’s easy to be left with a feeling of “What does it take?!”

As of 2020, Native American representation in film was 0.3 – 0.5 percent. In 2021, Indigenous people were calling for change. That makes this loss sting all the more. Also, some sports teams in the US still use stereotypical Native American iconography for their mascots and apparel — and the conversation around changing them gets really stupid really fast. (Lily actually criticised the Kansas City Chiefs’ “Tomahawk chop” before they won the Super Bowl.)

KS: Do you think there’s any reason to be optimistic?

NB: Well, maybe. First of all, Lily has been everywhere since Killers of the Flower Moon came out. The Oscars may not have given them the top prize, but it was clear what the culture valued. We wanted Lily to win. That’s why they were trending on Twitter. That’s something.

KS: I do truly hope that this is the beginning of Lily’s meteoric rise in Hollywood and she’s able to grace the big screen more. Not just with Native stories, because true representation is being able to have Native women and people play roles that aren’t defined by their identity.

NB: Absolutely. The Academy got it wrong this time and they’ll get it wrong again. But the culture will keep moving forward. There’s no other choice.

Image credit: Getty