“If not now, when?”
Parasite wasn’t simply an achievement in filmmaking, but a movie with a message about class, cruelty, and poverty. It was the underdog at a ceremony traditionally so white its earned a seemingly unshakeable hashtag to match, and where non-English language films are relegated to the Best International Feature category the vast majority of the time. Extremely few people of color had won Best Director, as Bong Joon Ho had. Prior to these awards, no Korean film had even scored an Oscars nomination. And never had a non-English language film won Best Picture.
While “If not now, when?” is a question, it is also a challenge. The movie’s Twitter account first posted the phrase on Jan. 23, with a behind-the-scenes photo of the Korean cast smiling at the camera: Voter, cast your ballot for this exquisite piece of art that just happens to be made by non-white, non-English speakers in a foreign language — what are you waiting for, permission?
An “opportune moment in history is happening right now” said Parasite producer Kwak Sin-ae (via an English translator) when she took to the mic to accept Best Picture. It was a comment that very much addressed the immediacy of “If not now, when.” Now is an era when entertainment and the arts still very much struggle with racial, cultural, and gender representation. Now is a time — undeniably — where class and visibility are at the heart of global political-culture clashes. Now is an election year.
And “now” was very much on the mind of several Oscars night winners and presenters, many shooting their shot during speeches and intros to highlight even the most divisive issues.
Best Documentary Feature winner American Factory Julia Reichert nodded to labor unions in her speech but also growing difficulties for the working class: “Working people have it harder and harder these days. We believe that things will get better when workers of the world unite” (the latter portion a riff on The Communist Manifesto). Best Supporting Actor winner Brad Pitt acknowledged the 45-second limit on acceptance speeches, “45 seconds more than the Senate gave John Bolton this week,” condemning the proceedings during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. Best Actor winner Joaquin Phoenix connected his argument for animal rights and veganism to the destruction of the planet and the responsibility of the “inventive and creative and ingenious” people in the room to fight inequality.
Two separate moments with Taika Waititi actually combine into a single bittersweet challenge to the viewer. Early on in the ceremony, the filmmaker and actor dedicated his Best Adapted Screenplay win to creative “indigenous kids of the world.” Later, he read: “The Academy would like to acknowledge that they are gathered on the ancestral lands of the Tongva, Tataviam, and Chumash…. the first people of this land on which our motion picture community lives and works.” These are indigenous North American tribes which, like so many others, are on the brink of extinction after centuries of displacement, forced conversion, and disease. It was a disparity: shouting out to a new generation of peoples whose cultures struggle to survive.
It’s rare when anybody — celebrity or not — gets a quiet room, to take up all the air, and to put their stamp on the “now.” Whether the viewer agrees with the perspectives or not, who can blame entertainers for trying to challenge their audience. Because if not now, when?