By: Abigail Perdue (Wake Forest Law)
Language gave a powerful performance at the 92nd Academy Awards. From fashion to foreign films, words took center stage. Actress Natalie Portman gave new meaning to the phrase “fashion statement” when she donned a cape bearing the names of female directors whom she felt had been snubbed at prior Oscars. Words woven into her garment became her silent but powerful protest.
Parasite made history by becoming the first film, not in English, to win Best Picture. At a pivotal time when language barriers and cultural differences threaten to divide people of different national origins and backgrounds, Parasite broke down those walls, provoking a collective sense of awe at the satire’s disturbing depiction of what some have described as “brutal . . . class warfare” and the social chaos it produces.
Parasite also won the Academy Award for Best International Feature, an award formerly known as Best Foreign Film. Although the category is still limited to films predominantly in a language other than English, the Academy determined that the term “foreign” was antiquated and possibly offensive, opting for what it felt would be a more inclusive, evolved title.
Language continued to take center stage when Parasite’s director, Bong Joon-ho, employed an interpreter, Sharon Choi, to translate his numerous Oscar speeches into English throughout the night. Although he delivered his remarks in Korean, like his film, Joon-ho still spoke a language that everyone could understand and appreciate: the language of gratitude, earnestness, and humility. Through his sincerity, humor, and emotion, I quickly forgot that we were two very different people from very different countries and backgrounds who spoke very different languages. Instead, he felt familiar, like an old friend. His moving speech fostered togetherness and understanding.
Rather than touting his own accomplishments, Joon-ho spent most of his allotted time openly praising and honoring his fellow nominees. In a memorable and heartwarming Oscar moment, Joon-ho extolled Martin Scorsese for inspiring him to become a filmmaker. He spoke Scorsese’s words back to him in Korean: “The most personal is the most creative.” In so doing, Joon-ho demonstrated how Scorsese’s words had once reached a stranger in a distant land and altered the course of his life. Members of the audience were so moved that in response, they gave Scorsese an unforgettable standing ovation.
Joon-ho’s humility and graciousness again shone through when he expressed his desire to cut his Oscar into five equal parts to share with the other deserving nominees. Joon-ho had won, and they had lost. Yet his words powered through that divide to uplift his fellow nominees, making them equals rather than placing himself above them.
Subsequent winners followed suit with some of the most memorable Oscar acceptance speeches in recent history. Best Actor Joaquin Phoenix eloquently opined: “at times we feel . . . that we champion different causes, but for me, I see commonality. . . [W]hether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice.” With disturbing detail, he described the anguish of a baby calf forcefully removed from her mother, so that humans can instead steal the milk intended for her calf to use in their morning coffee. His words were convicting, risky, brave, and provocative. Teary-eyed, he ended his impassioned speech by quoting beautiful song lyrics from his deceased brother: “Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow” – words so meaningful that they had outlived their creator and made him immortal, first to his brother and now to us all. Similarly, Best Actress Renee Zellweger called for greater inclusion and civility, observing that “our heroes unite us.”
Unfortunately, at a time when polarization and prejudice threaten America, the powerful use of language at this year’s Oscars to underscore our common humanity and encourage us to unite have been largely overlooked or worse yet, derided by some media outlets. But the words were not lost on me. As a lover of language and teacher of communication, I, more than most, appreciate the profound power of Language to unite, to inspire, and to save. And this year, Language was the Leading Lady who truly stole the show!
What did the Oscars teach you? How might you incorporate major pop culture moments like the Oscars into your teaching? Share your good ideas at teachlawbetter.com, and we might just post them.