Parasite, The Oscars, and American Exceptionalism

why the film’s best picture win represents an important cultural shift

It only took some ninety years or so of Academy Awards history for a foreign language film to finally win the coveted “Best Picture” prize at the Oscars. But here we are, and as they say, better late than never. Following widespread criticism for giving the award to “Green Book” last year, whilst overlooking two masterpieces of modern filmmaking — Afonso Cuaron’s intimate “Roma” and the witty film “The Favourite” by Greek director Jorgos Lanthimos — it’s tempting to see Parasite’s win as a vindication of sorts by the Academy, an inevitable and necessary response to criticism. But maybe, just maybe, the Korean film’s triumph is a symptom of something deeper and far more relevant: the fading power of so-called American or Western exceptionalism.

2020 was supposed to be the year of Sam Mendes’s 1917, itself an instant classic. Much has been made of the film’s cinematographic achievement of appearing as if shot in one take, with up-close camerawork and visually stunning explosions offering a haunting reminder of just how brutal war can be. It’s a truly stunning film, but an important one also at a time when armed conflicts continue to destroy lives in Syria, Sudan, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Yemen, you name it. Above all, however, 1917 is an English-speaking film, likely to resonate with the American audiences and The Academy in ways that many expected Parasite not to. Language obviously plays an important role, what director Bong Joon-ho referred to as the “one-inch tall barrier of subtitles”. We’re all slightly guilty of this when selecting a movie to watch, say, this evening, less likely to pick something we perceive as ‘foreign’, choosing instead to remain in our linguistic and cultural comfort zones.

The phenomenon naturally goes beyond film. When we read news, we care far more about what happens within our countries. Who on earth, apart from the Italians, follows elections in Italy? Likewise, when we learn about history in school, national heroes, events and myths take centre stage. Ask an American about the key event in World War II and they’re likely to answer Pearl Harbour while Russians will unequivocally mention the Battle of Stalingrad. Obama himself alluded to this: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” But the illusion of American exceptionalism is particularly strengthened by the fact the country remains a dominant economic and cultural force globally. Much like Trump’s ego which only gets inflated by constant “winning”, the reality of American power does little to quell self-perceptions of being unique, exceptional, more important than the rest of the world.

This at least partly explains why the Academy stuck to its own, nationally oriented comfort zone, overlooking foreign language films for so long. How else do you explain Green Book’s win last year? Or the fact that Parasite is only the 12th ever foreign-language nominee for Best picture? We’re talking only 12 nominees over 90 years here, among which lie timeless filmmaking gems: “Amour”, “Life is Beautiful”, and the aforementioned “Roma”. Parasite’s win is in fact the first Oscar received by a South Korean film period, despite a thriving Korean film industry and a culture/reputation for critical acclaim. As film bloggers here put it: “ It took the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences their entire existence to learn what the world already knew: cinema from South Korea is among the finest ever made”.

Parasite’s ultimate Oscars success is thus even more significant, a long overdue symbolic recognition that what happens beyond America, beyond the cultural familiarity of “The West”, holds value and importance. That one can learn from what is ‘foreign’, and crucially, that certain themes transcend national borders. Indeed, Parasite’s success and popularity stems largely from the universal themes the movie explores, themes which have conversely become key talking points in American politics in the past few years: The growing divide and disconnect between rich and poor, both in economic and social terms. The ambiguities of capitalism, the despair of living in poverty and the often-unrealistic hopes of escaping it. Bong himself summed it up quite neatly: “We all live in the same country now: that of capitalism.”

To find more evidence of a potential shift in discourse around American exceptionalism, look no further than Bernie Sanders’ rise and the content of his speeches. What you’ll find is a rhetoric which essentially inverts American exceptionalism: We’re exceptionally poor at providing healthcare to our citizens, we have an exceptionally expensive educational system, and so on. Whereas Obama constantly spoke of how “we’re the greatest nation on earth” Sanders says, “maybe we’re not”. Constant references to the Scandinavian healthcare model, meanwhile, are an acknowledgement that many of the country’s problems stem from a culture which somewhat blindly glorifies itself while refusing to accept its own deficiencies and learn from others.

I may be an optimist here, but my hope is that the Academy’s recognition of Parasite’s sheer brilliance represents an admittedly small and incremental, but potentially significant step in countering an egotistic, self-centred worldview which overlooks countless works of art, ideas, events, views, and perspectives from outside “The West”. Bring on more Parasites, recognise them, and we all stand to gain.

Writer from Poland & Burkina-Faso. I cover Politics and Society

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