‘Jojo Rabbit’ and the Oscars’ Other Big Diversity Problem
Arguing that minorities should be awarded solely on the basis of identity is wrong, writes Cassie da Costa.
I was slightly surprised that at Sunday’s Oscar ceremony, Taika Waititi, the charmingly irreverent filmmaker behind Jojo Rabbit, won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay over Greta Gerwig, whose Little Women was a favorite to win the category. I was even more surprised when several people online began to defend this win because Waititi is an indigenous New Zealander, and Jewish.
It is unclear whether these galaxy-brain critics have seen both films, but the argument goes that Gerwig’s loss should not be lamented as a failure of Oscar gender diversity, but instead, we should rejoice in an indigenous man winning. I agree with the former but not the latter; Gerwig should have won not because she is a woman, but because her work was leagues better than Waititi’s. Little Women was not among my favorite films of the year, but the film’s screenplay was the most imaginative, modern, and compelling of the nominees. That Gerwig didn’t win speaks not necessarily to the Academy memberships’ undeniable sexism, but to its overwhelming obtuseness; they decided to give a terrible script the most prestigious award when far better work (including the screenplay for The Irishman) was available.
Jojo Rabbit is what I call a Nazi-Clown movie, since Waititi plays a silly, sprightly Hitler as imagined by a Hitler Youth, Jojo, whose mother is a member of the resistance hiding a Jewish girl in their attic, à la Anne Frank. The film is, to me, contrived, absurd, and manipulative, with a vision haphazardly cribbed from Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, particularly The Grand Budapest Hotel—a comedy about relationships, loyalties, and fascism that is far more worth your time.
Still, bad films tend to win Oscars. I’ve enjoyed Waititi’s comedies starring Jemaine Clement, especially What We Do in the Shadows, and his other light entertainment fare like Thor: Ragnarok and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople has been encouraging in its refusal to take contrived action plots seriously while allowing misfits to remain misfits for the entirety of their madcap adventures. That Waititi will be best known for his worst film speaks to the many disappointments involved in placing so much cultural weight on a cynical awards ceremony like the Oscars.
If you loved Jojo Rabbit, then yes, Waititi’s win is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate an individual who is part of a group whose art has been routinely ignored by major institutions and whose communities have been brutally marginalized by those in power. But there is no reason that all those lamenting Gerwig’s loss should receive a blanket accusation of white feminism—if you evaluate the films for what they are, she should have won. Of course, it’s ridiculous to expect Academy members (who decided Green Book was the best film of 2018) to award films on merit, but in a ceremony that unexpectedly awarded Parasite—a very good film that’s entirely in Korean—not only Best International Feature, but Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, it is a bit strange that voters also decided to throw Jojo Rabbit—a very bad, whimsical Nazi parable—a bone in trophy form.
I’m glad Waititi has managed to sustain a career in such a difficult, typically exclusionary industry, and sincerely hope he follows Jojo with a film that is worthy of high praise—he seems like a decent person who is willing to use his enormous platform to advocate for indigenous rights and sovereignty, morally and politically urgent issues indeed. Still, it is not a form of justice, but of condescension, to insist that the work of racialized people be awarded solely on the basis of identity. At worst, this idea suggests that Jojo Rabbit is our best shot at celebrating a film helmed by an indigenous person—a convenient yet terrifying proposition.