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Movies President Trump’s Take on Parasite Echoes an Old Debate Over the Role of Non-American Films at the Oscars

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Movies President Trump’s Take on Parasite Echoes an Old Debate Over the Role of Non-American Films at the Oscars

Nostalgia has been a regular theme at rallies for President Donald Trump since before he was elected — he is, after all, the man who wants to make America great again. On Thursday night, at a rally in Colorado Springs, Trump directed that sentiment at the movie industry, dismissing the South Korean film Parasite, which…

Movies President Trump’s Take on Parasite Echoes an Old Debate Over the Role of Non-American Films at the Oscars

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Nostalgia has been a regular theme at rallies for President Donald Trump since before he was elected — he is, after all, the man who wants to make America great again. On Thursday night, at a rally in Colorado Springs, Trump directed that sentiment at the movie industry, dismissing the South Korean film Parasite, which won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture.

“We’ve got enough problems with South Korea with trade; on top of it, they give it the best movie of the year,” Trump said. “Let’s get Gone With The Wind. Can we get Gone With The Wind back please? Sunset Boulevard, so many great movies. ‘The winner is, from South Korea…’ I thought it was best foreign film, best foreign movie. No! Did this ever happen before?”

Vivien Leigh on the Dec. 25, 1939, cover of TIME.

TIME

Trump’s praise of Gone with the Wind raised some eyebrows. The history-making 1939 movie was one of the earliest blockbusters; in fact, when adjusted for inflation, it’s still considered the highest-grossing film of all-time. While still considered an important Hollywood milestone and beloved by many cinephiles, the Confederate-friendly framing of its Civil War story makes it a prime example of “how deeply entrenched was the racism of Hollywood and its audiences,” TIME’s Richard Corliss once wrote. The movie also made Hattie McDaniel, who played Scarlett O’Hara’s enslaved maid, the first African-American to win an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress) — a prize she received in a segregated ceremony venue.

But there’s also an important backstory in the answer to Trump’s specific question: Has a movie eligible for Best International Feature Film, a category that Parasite also dominated, ever won Best Picture?

Parasite was in fact the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture, but Hamlet, starring Laurence Olivier, was the first non-American film to win Best Picture, in 1949, before the category now called International Feature Film was introduced. Hamlet’s victory came amid a specific, concerted push to have more international films represented at the Academy Awards. But that effort to be more inclusive ended up making the ceremony, in some ways, just the opposite.

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International films often didn’t make it to the U.S. at all during World War II, because of limited distribution. But the postwar years saw a “massive influx” of movies, says UCLA scholar Monica Roxanne Sandler, who wrote an article on post-war Academy Awards ceremonies. The 1947 Oscars, honoring films released in 1946, saw the most nominations for international films to date; among the screenwriting-related nominees were Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise, with a screenplay by Jacques Prévert, made in Nazi-occupied France, and Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, with a screenplay written by Federico Fellini and Sergio Amidei, set in the Nazi-occupied Italian capital. The Academy gave out “special” or “honorary” awards to foreign language films between 1947 and 1956.

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The increase in international representation among the nominees was an effort to “present global reunification,” Sandler says, and part of the larger effort outside of Hollywood to “make real bonds of allegiance in the post-war period.” Hollywood had already been developing relationships globally with the Academy War Film Collection, which worked with embassies to acquire footage from conflict zones, and the Academy wasn’t the only film organization with this approach. In 1950, the U.K.’s BAFTA gave out its first United Nations Award for “the best Film embodying one or more of the principles of the United Nations Charter.” Global film festivals started to become more common, as a way to bring films and people together.

Even so, Hamlet’s victory showed that many people in Hollywood thought of the Oscars as an award for American-made movies. At the time, production companies bankrolled the Academy Awards, and they were furious when the U.K. film won Best Picture rather than the award going to one of their own pictures, Sandler says. Movies from overseas faced an uphill battle at the Oscars.

So, in 1957, to help ensure that such films would always be represented at Hollywood’s biggest night, the Foreign Language Film became an official category, rather than an honorary or special award.

However, with the new category, those who felt the Oscars should prioritize Hollywood were able to double down. Though the intention had been to make sure international cinema had more of a seat at the table, the upshot was that such films often found themselves relegated to that one category.

“For the same reason Parasite was a shocking win, when there was a really fantastic foreign-language film, there was a viewpoint that the Best Foreign Language Film category was enough,” Sandler says. “So the attempt to make sure there was a global presence at the ceremony all the time, with the Best Foreign Language Film category, inadvertently limited the potential of what an international film could do at the awards, [until] a few weeks ago.”

Now that TV isn’t the most reliable funding stream, Sandler says, perhaps that’s why the U.S. award ceremony is looking abroad for inspiration once again.

“A lot of the incentive is a way of repositioning themselves and remaining relevant in a period when some people argued, ‘What do we need the awards for?’” she says. “The Academy is losing relevancy. They can’t fund themselves in the same way they used to because their ratings are down, which is why you saw ads for a new watch. But there’s also this push to revamp who the voting pool [is] and to create a more international company, to redefine themselves on a global scale, just as they sought to redefine themselves during the post-war era.”

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