Not American Enough?

Hollywood’s double standard rears its head again


Photo courtesy of A24

“Minari” (2020) was recently categorized by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association as a Foreign Language Film, drawing backlash online.

Elliott Lee, Staff Writer

Korean-American director Lee Isaac Chung’s 2020 film “Minari” is just about as American as it gets. It’s a film starring an American actor (Steven Yeun), set in America (Arkansas), about a Korean immigrant family trying to live the American Dream in the 1980s. The film was financed by two US production companies, A24 and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, and was filmed in the area around Tulsa, Oklahoma. It has garnered mostly positive ratings, with critics on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes giving Lee’s drama an average score of 8.7/10. All in all, “Minari” has everything it needs to be a great American movie.

However, because a majority of the dialogue is in Korean, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) categorized the movie under Foreign-Language Film as opposed to the more prominent Best Drama, causing it to be ineligible for a Best Picture accolade at the Golden Globe Awards. The decision was met with immediate outcry by prominent Asian-American Hollywood personalities such as Simu Liu, Andrew Phung, and Lulu Wang. Granted, the film’s distributor A24 submitted it under the Foreign-Language category and didn’t dispute the classification, but this only reveals a deeper issue regarding HFPA’s practices.

In fact, the 2020 Golden Globe Awards were marred by a similar firestorm over the Foreign-Language Film classification of American-made “The Farewell” (2019), incidentally also produced by A24, for the same reason as “Minari”: there wasn’t enough English dialogue for it to be considered “American.” The majority of the film was in Mandarin but starred New York-born actress Awkwafina, who played a Chinese-American character in the comedy. Awkwafina ended up winning a Golden Globe for Best Actress in the Musical/Comedy category because individuals can win awards for non-English films in the Drama and Musical/Comedy categories. Two years of backlash over the Foreign-Language Film field and accusations of xenophobia raise a serious question: In a nation where 20% of households speak a language other than English at home, what constitutes a “foreign language?”

It may come as a surprise, but English isn’t the official language of the United States; Congress has never passed such a law and the Constitution makes no mention of establishing one. It makes no sense that a film must contain more than 50% English to be eligible for the Golden Globes’ Best Motion Picture awards. What’s more shocking, however, is how two films, “Babel” (2006) and “Inglorious Basterds” (2009), were both nominated for Best Picture in the Drama category despite both films containing a significant amount of non-English speech. “Babel” (which ended up winning the Best Picture – Drama award) consisted of more than 60% Spanish, French, Arabic, and Japanese dialogue, while “Inglorious Basterds” had a whopping 70% of the dialogue and 58% of its runtime in French, German, or Italian. While the rules and eligibility requirements for the different Golden Globes categories have changed over the years, the HFPA’s refusal to reconsider them in the face of two high-profile controversies demonstrates a lack of accountability to move towards greater diversity.

Interestingly enough, the HFPA’s rules for the Foreign-Language Film category once barred films with significant financing or creative elements originating in the United States from competing in the Foreign-Language category. However, this rule was scrapped following the Mexican film “Sin Nombre”’s (2009) failure to pick up a single nomination at the 2010 Golden Globes, which had been popular among members of HFPA. This startling precedent indicates that the HFPA is willing to quickly bend the rules when a film with a European language is involved but will drag its feet for one with Asian speech.

“Parasite”’s 2020 Oscar sweep highlighted a watershed moment for Hollywood, where recognition of non-English films has historically been few and far between. Whereas the Academy Awards renamed the former “Best Foreign Language Film” to the more inclusive “Best International Film,” the Golden Globes have stubbornly stuck by an outdated term with ridiculous regulations. An award for non-American films is not inherently wrong, but it should not be made on the basis of language. Instead, it should accept nominations based on where production took place; reinstating the rules removed after “Sin Nombre” would be a good place to start. Additionally, renaming the category to something along the lines of “Best non-American Film” would be the most accurate description of the award, as opposed to a proposed “Best International Film” (are US films not international?). Hopefully, the HFPA will be in the spotlight for leading the movement for inclusiveness and equality instead of finding itself embroiled in a controversy over xenophobia.