Guillermo del Toro’s triumph at the 2018 Academy Awards, winning Best Director – as he was widely expected to do – marks the fourth time in five years that a Mexican director has won the most coveted of all the gold statuettes at this most prestigious of industry award ceremonies. Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for Gravity in 2014. Alejandro G. Iñárritu won the Oscar in the following two years for Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in 2015 and The Revenant in 2016. This year Del Toro’s movie, The Shape of Water, was also recognised as Best Picture.
This twin success for Del Toro – and that of his fellow Mexican directors in previous years – while extraordinary in terms of the directors’ origins, can be linked to both historical and more recent patterns in Oscar winners.
As respected film academic Kristen Thompson points out, technical brilliance and aesthetic criteria traditionally ruled in the awarding of Oscars. More recently, Thompson notes, the reasons behind the awarding of certain Oscars, have become more rooted in identity politics, as we saw when Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight won the award for Best Picture for the impressive Moonlight. Of course, as Jenkins has demonstrated, the two criteria are often complementary.
The collective technical tour de forces of Gravity and Birdman – particularly their achievements in long-take cinematography – played a large part in Cuarón and Iñárritu winning their Best Director accolades and in their compatriot, Emmanuel Lubezki, also winning Oscars for Best Cinematography for both films.
Iñárritu’s award for The Revenant, a story about a father’s struggle to avenge the murder of his mixed-raced son, meets both aesthetic and political criteria. In its critique of colonialist excesses and sympathetic treatment of indigenous communities, The Revenant was well placed to partially compensate for the much-criticised lack of diversity in the Academy’s award nominations, called out by the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
Breaching the wall
The success of del Toro, Iñárritu and Cuarón, Mexican directors in an industry that is predominantly white and Anglocentric – and still overwhelmingly male – is all the more notable because it comes at a time of increased political tensions over the US/Mexico border, and the demonisation of Mexican immigrants in certain quarters.
Across their body of work, all three directors have spoken in different ways to the plight of immigrants, de-racinated or displaced from their homes: Cuarón in Y tu mamá también (2001) and Children of Men (2006), Iñárritu in Babel (2006) and Biutiful (2010). Now in The Shape of Water, through Strickland’s torturing of the amphibian man he has “dragged from the Amazon” – and who he calls an “abomination” – del Toro references the rough passage and dehumanisation of undocumented migrants in present-day America.
Although Cuarón, Iñárritu and del Toro’s films, and often award ceremony acceptance speeches, emphasise their identity and solidarity with migrants, their successes in the US film industry are due to the fact that they make strong genre-inflected films with broad appeal.
That they make films within the Hollywood institution doesn’t mean however, that they have been wholly “assimilated” into its practices and ideology. While “the three amigos”, as they have been called, are entirely fluent in the language of mainstream Hollywood, they have transnationalised these norms and styles, and brought something new and exciting to US and global audiences.
Many of their films reinvent the genres to which they purportedly belong. With Gravity Cuarón, Lubezki and the British visual effects supervisor, Tim Webber, took the technical and emotional language of the disaster space movie cinema to new realms. Despite its American lead actors (George Clooney and Sandra Bullock), it plays down the US global hegemony most frequently at the core of (space) disaster films. The film significantly starts with its protagonists admiring the view from space of Mexico.
Similarly, The Revenant offers a counter narrative to the most North American of genres, the Western, emphasising in a gory opening of bloodied beaver pelts and elsewhere how the race to expand westwards was motivated by economic forces – and often achieved through the massacre of Native Americans.
Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a worthy Best Picture award winner as it demonstrates technical brilliance and a serious engagement with identity politics. It rewrites the hero rulebook, with its strong female lead (Sally Hawkins) and supporting African-American (Octavia Spencer) and gay (Richard Jenkins) characters.
With its emphasis on diversity and inclusivity The Shape of Water also seems the obvious choice in the era of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements also honoured at last night’s ceremony and their highlighting of endemic sexual abuse and harassment in the film industry and all workplaces. That The Shape of Water has done so well at the Oscars is potentially a marker of the Academy’s much reported progress towards diversifying its own membership.
Other historic wins also buttress the notion of an Academy moving towards greater equality and representation. Jordan Peele (Get Out), became the first African American to win for Best Original Screenplay. Another winner (for the Best Foreign Language Film), A Fantastic Woman – a film that narrates a personal transgender experience in Chile – features a defiant, yet tender performance by transgender actress Daniela Vega.
The success of Mexican directors at the Oscars nonetheless belies the continued lack of representation of Latinos as noted by a recent UCLA diversity report. A future Oscar-nominated feature with a strong Latino and Latina cast, directed by Cuarón, Iñárritu or del Toro would be the next game changer for the US film industry.