The 91st Academy Awards, for which critical darling Roma took home major wins, came with a surprising post-script: Steven Spielberg wants the rules of the Oscars changed deeming Netflix films ineligible at the Oscars at an upcoming Academy board meeting. Critics, film lovers, and even fans of Spielberg have weighed in on this campaign by one of the most popular directors in the world.
That said, let’s look at Netflix’s first four aggressive forays into Oscar campaigns, which are Beasts of No Nation, 13th, Mudbound, and Roma. Beasts of No Nation, the 2015 war drama directed by Cary Fukunaga, is based on Uzodinma Iweala‘s 2005 novel of the same. And it was, criminally, snubbed at the 2016 Oscars and locked out Idris Elba from a potential Oscar win. By contrast, the Alfonso Cuarón black-and-white drama Roma was an award season sweetheart, with ten nominations at the 2019 Academy Awards. The movie also thrust first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio into the spotlight, making her the first indigenous Mexican woman to be nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars.
No major studio would have made Roma (who wants to seat in a theater for two hours and watch a black-and-white drama where the character don’t speak English?). Yes, I thought as much. Also, these studios are rife with institutionalised discrimination against women and people of colour. Netflix, in its streaming revolution, has been a bastion of inclusion and accessibility for marginalised audiences. When filmmakers choose to distribute through a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon, they are widening their audience by millions. Last year, Netflix announced it was going to start ordering and producing more original African content. Between then and now, two upcoming South African shows – Queen Sono and Shadow – are set to premiere on the platform.
Back in January this year, Genevieve Nnaji’s buzzy, directorial debut Lionheart arrived on Netflix, after a brief, tempestuous period where Nnaji accused distribution company FilmOne of boycotting her movie. Through Netflix, Lionheart became even more accessible worldwide. African movies don’t do well at the Oscars. Actually, they hardly get nominated at all, even in categories like Best Foreign Language. Wanuri Kahiu’s lesbian drama Rafiki, which I was rooting for, wasn’t nominated at the recent Oscars.
With the voting body of the Academy becoming diversified, and with Netflix’s latest manifesto to produce more African content, more people will get the chance to consume them and thus pushing them into the Oscar race. Spielberg’s campaign to disallow streaming films means African content will just exist for people to appreciate on Netflix, reviews on Wikipedia and whatnot. Netflix has upended how we watch movies and television shows, and its existence in the film ecosystem doesn’t threaten theatrical releases, as Spielberg wants to have us believe.