Your Break Between Classes

Do the 2021 ‘Best Picture’ Nominees Pass Diversity Tests?

Year after year, the Academy Awards have faced backlash for a lack of representation. From the #OscarSoWhite controversy to the “Moonlight” Best Picture mix-up, the Oscars continue to face scrutiny for its lack of diversity.

The Academy Awards announced a diverse group of nominees this year. But as seen in the past when “Green Book” won Best Picture, some feel that this representation is weak at best. Both the Bechdel Test and Duvernay Test have risen in popularity as a bare-minimum requirement for films with diverse casts.

The “Bechdel Test,” coined by cartoonist Allison Bechdel in 1985, measures the way women are represented in film using three criteria. In order for a movie to pass the Bechdel test it must have:

(1) at least two women characters

(2) names for the women

(3) the women talking about something other than a man.

The “DuVernay Test,” coined by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis and named after filmmaker Ava DuVernay, measures a film’s diversity. The DuVernay test simply requires that African Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serving as scenery in predominantly white stories.

This clip of the show “Rick and Morty” pokes fun at the lack of female driven plot lines in various shows and movies by creating an absurdist look at the test.

These tests may seem simple enough, but passing both the Bechdel Test and Duvernay Test is easier said than done. Of the 10 biggest Oscar wins of 2020, only six passed the Bechdel test. So how well does this year’s list of Best Picture nominees hold up?

THE FATHER

Directed by Florian Zeller, “The Father” follows Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) and his daughter Anne (Olivia Coleman) as they cope with his progressing memory loss. Anthony has dementia and often forgets important life events or misplaces his belongings; nevertheless, he insists on living alone and without a caretaker. It’s later revealed that Anthony has lived with Anne and her boyfriend, Paul, for years. Looking after her father takes a toll on Anne and her relationship with Paul; she tells Anthony that she plans to leave London and move to Paris. Anne copes with the loss of her father as his mind unravels in front of her.

“The Father” received six Academy nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress. “The Father” doesn’t meet the criteria for the Bechdel Test or the DuVernay Test. While it does include more than two named women characters with speaking roles, their conversations are about Anthony’s character.

Bechdel Test: No

DuVernay Test: N/A    

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

“Judas and the Black Messiah,”, directed by Shaka King, is an American biographical drama about the FBI’s assassination of Fred Hampton, the 21-year-old chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. The story follows Hampton and the FBI informant William O’Neal in the events leading up to Hampton’s death.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” received six Academy nominations including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor,and Best Screenplay. The film successfully meets the DuVernay Test with a nearly all Black cast and crew. “Judas and the Black Messiah” not only reveals the fully realized lives of Black people on the screen, but also tells the true story of Black activists. The film meets two-thirds of the Bechdel test criteria, but the women with speaking roles talk about men in their conversations.

Bechdel Test: No

DuVernay Test: Yes

MANK

“Mank,”, directed by David Fincher, is a biographical drama about real-life screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz aka Mank,      played by Gary Oldman,      and his development of the screenplay for “Citizen Kane.” Orson Welles (Tom Burke), a hot-shot director, has arranged for Mankiewicz to stay in a house on the edge of the Californian desert, providing him with cigarettes, alcohol and a British typist named Rita (Lily Collins). The film cuts back and forth between Mank writing “Citizen Kane” in 1940 and flashbacks to Mank’s career in Hollywood in the 1930s. The 1934 California gubernatorial elections are also taking place, and Mank observes as MGM studio execs create a series of propaganda films for the Republican candidate to thwart progressive Democrat Upton Sinclair. Mank disapproves of their methods, and — the movie suggests — used that experience as further inspiration for the character of Charles Foster Kane.

Given the context of “Mank,”, a love letter to the 1930s Golden Age of Hollywood, it’s unsurprising that the film fails both the Bechdel and DuVernay test. The cast is blindingly white and absent any fully realized Black characters. While there are two explicitly named women characters, they don’t speak to each other, and the one conversation in which women do speak centers around a man. Despite the lack of diversity, “Mank” still received 10 Academy nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.

Bechdel Test: No

DuVernay Test: No

MINARI

“Minari,” directed by Lee Isaac Chung, follows a family of South Korean immigrants as they attempt to build a life for themselves in rural Arkansas. Jacob Yi,      played by Steven Yeun,      moves his family from California to a plot of land where Yi hopes to grow produce to sell to vendors in Texas. Amid the challenges of this new life in the strange and rugged Ozarks, they discover the undeniable resilience of family and what really makes a home.

“Minari” reflects the universal experiences of trying to build a community, creating a legacy and feeling like an outsider all while in search of the American dream. “Minari” received six Academy nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. The film successfully meets the Bechdel Test and the DuVernay Test. Audiences continue to advocate for on-screen Asian representation. While works like “Crazy Rich Asians” are relevant to this conversation, “Minari” stands out as an authentic portrayal of a working-class immigrant story.

Bechdel Test: Yes

DuVernay Test: Yes

NOMADLAND

“Nomadland,” directed by Chloé Zhao, follows a woman named Fern,      played by Frances McDormand     , who leaves her hometown in Empire, Nevada, following the death of her husband and the closing of the town’s factory and sole industry. In the wake of her husband’s death and her job loss, Fern decides to sell her belongings, pack her bags and begin her journey as a nomad. Fern purchases a van and travels across the country in search of work before eventually finding a community of nomads and travelers who teach her the basics of survival and self-sufficiency on the road.

“Nomadland” passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. As the story progresses, Fran engages with a number of women who talk about everything from song lyrics to surviving on the road. While “Nomadland” isn’t void of actors of color their stories are not part of the main storyline; the film does not pass the DuVernay test.

Bechdel Test: Yes

DuVernay Test: No

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN

Promising Young Woman, directed by Emerald Fennell, is a dark comedy thriller following med-school dropout Cassie Thomas,      played by Carey Mulligan     , a woman who seeks to avenge the death of Nina Fisher, her best friend and a fatal victim of rape. Nina received no legal justice, and the perpetrator faced no repercussions of any kind. Cassie spends her nights pretending to be drunk and going home with the men who try to take advantage of her. As the story progresses, Cassie enacts revenge on the people responsible for Nina’s death.

Whether or not “Promising Young Woman” passes the Bechdel Test is somewhat up for debate. The film definitely has more than two named women characters with speaking roles, but many of their conversations centered around men. At least, Cassie has small talk with other women on subjects other than men. Whether the film passes the DuVernay test is also debatable; Gail (played by Lavern Cox) is one of Cassie’s only living friends within the movie. Gail does not exist as scenery within the movie, and saying so      feels like it minimizes her      role within the film. Gail doesn’t exist as decoration or scenery; instead her purpose is to push Cassie’s story forward. She does not exist outside the confines of her relationship with Cassie, and we learn little about her life. Ultimately, “Promising Young Woman” doesn’t pass the DuVernay test because Gail’s life, while fully realized, isn’t the focus of this story.

Bechdel Test: Yes

DuVernay Test: No

SOUND OF METAL

“Sound of metal”, directed by Darius Marder, follows drummer Ruben,      played by Riz Ahmed     , as he rapidly begins to lose his hearing. Ruben is one half of the heavy metal duo Blackgammon, along with the singer and his girlfriend, Lou. Lou wants to stop performing when Ruben begins losing his hearing, but he insists that they continue. As the story progresses, Ruben’s hearing deteriorates further and Lou fears for Ruben’s mental health and sobriety. Ruben eventually joins a support group people who are deaf and recovering from addiction. He begins to make peace with his new reality as Lou continues her music career abroad. Just as Ruben is offered a permanent position in his new community of peers in recovery with hearing impairments, he throws the opportunity away to get cochlear implant surgery. While the surgery allows Reuben to hear again, the sound is not the same and he is once again forced to confront his reality or continue living life in denial.

“Sound of Metal” fails both the Bechdel and DuVernay Test, but the film does represent a minority community by depicting an able-bodied man’s dissension into a reality in which he cannot hear.

Bechdel Test: No

DuVernay Test: No     .

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

“The Trial of the Chicago 7,” directed by Aaron Sorkin, is based on true events and depicts the real-life trial of the Chicago 7, a group of anti-war protesters charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines to incite a riot. In August 1968, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, John Froines and Bobby Seale made preparations to protest the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Five months later, they are arrested and charged with trying to incite a riot. As the story progresses, we see Judge Julius Hoffman’s blatant prejudice toward Seale and the defense. The film acts as a case study in the shortfalls of the American justice system and recounts how the trial transfixed the nation and sparked a conversation about anti-war efforts.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” passed the DuVernay test because it exposes exactly how the American justice system unfairly treated Bobby Seale. Furthermore, the film depicts the trial within the context of the Black Panther Party and anti-war counterculture; two realities in which Black people have a clearly defined lived experience. The film does not, however, pass the Bechdel Test, namely because while female characters existed with speaking roles, their conversations always centered on men.

Bechdel Test: No

DuVernay Test: Yes

Of the eight Best Picture nominees, only one film, “Minari,” passed the Bechdel Test and the DuVernay Test. Only four passed the DuVernay Test, and three passed the Bechdel Test.

The Academy has made efforts to address the lack of diversity by implementing new representation and inclusion standards for Oscars eligibility in the Best Picture category, as part of its Academy Aperture 2025 initiative. For the 96th Oscars (2024), a film must meet at least two of four representation standards ranging from diverse casting to leadership positions and crew. The standards are designed to encourage equitable representation on and off screen to better reflect the diversity of the movie-going audience.       

Ua Hayes covers television and film for 101Magazine.net.

Ua Hayes

Add comment

Leave a Reply

Check us out on Twitter!

Recent Comments