Oscar observers say the Academy Awards’ recent infatuation with Mexican cinema, especially its directors, reflects Hollywood’s diversity-conscious ideals and globalist aims.
“We’re becoming a more globalized society. … [We’re] more inquisitive of people from other cultures,” said Howie Berman, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
The Oscars have undergone a sea change in one of its most coveted categories: In the 10 years before 2013, only one Mexican filmmaker — Alejandro G. Inarritu for 2006’s “Babel” — was nominated for a best director Academy Award. Mr. Inarritu lost to Martin Scorsese for “The Departed.”
Since 2013, Mexican directors have been nominated six times and won five times, most recently Alfonso Cuaron for “Roma” last month. He also won for 2013’s “Gravity.”
What’s more, Mr. Inarritu won for 2014’s “Birdman” and 2015’s “The Revenant,” placing him in the same league as John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the only other recipients of back-to-back Oscars for best director.
National Review film critic Kyle Smith suggests the timing may be accidental, but the trend of Mexican directors winning big on Oscar night plays on a soft spot among voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“It probably doesn’t hurt their chances that Oscar voters see themselves as cosmopolitans who are welcoming of artists from all over the world,” Mr. Smith said. “Inarritu, in particular, started out as a very art-house-style director, but the academy loved ‘Birdman’ because it delved into issues about art versus commerce that they think about a lot.”
By contrast, Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro, who won last year’s best director Oscar for “The Shape of Water,” started as a genre filmmaker before embracing a more refined visual palette, Mr. Smith said.
Awash in #MeToo outrage and controversy, Hollywood also is still stinging from the #OscarsSoWhite backlash of a few years ago, so much so that embracing nonwhite voices burnishes the movie industry’s diversity. Mr. Smith said talented black filmmakers such as Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) and Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) may soon benefit from that impulse. Spike Lee received his first best director nomination this year for “BlacKkKlansman.”
Michael Kutza, founder and emeritus CEO of the Chicago International Film Festival, points out that the aforementioned “Nuevo Cine Mexicano” filmmakers found greater fame once they entered the Hollywood pipeline.
While Mr. Cuaron’s 2001 film “Y Tu Mama Tambien” wowed some, he segued from art-house films into franchise features via “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” Mr. Kutza said. The director later snared his first Oscar for the smart, popular “Gravity.” His Tinseltown bona fides secure, Mr. Cuaron took a step back into art-house fare with “Roma,” courtesy of Netflix.
Mr. del Toro took a different route. Mr. Kutza said Mr. del Toro retained his cult hero status with films such as “Hellboy” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” while embracing more sophisticated themes in “The Shape of Water.”
These directors’ Oscar glory may be new, but Mexican directors “have been involved in our American film-going lives for years, clearly not just at international film festivals,” he said.
Netflix has helped expedite and intensify the industry’s acceptance of Mexican filmmakers, Mr. Kutza said. The streaming giant presented “Roma” to audiences on screens in theaters and at home while embarking on an aggressive Oscar campaign on the film’s behalf.
“They have achieved something that only the famed Harvey Weinstein achieved in the old days: having a foreign film be considered across the board,” said the film festival maven.
Mr. Kutza said online retailer Amazon also gave foreign filmmaking a boost by acquiring the Oscar-nominated Polish film “Cold War.”
Writer/director/producer Ana Lydia Monaco said filmmakers like Mr. Cuaron and Mr. del Toro came up around the same time and supported one another along the way. They have more in common than kinship, Ms. Monaco said.
“The most prominent Mexican directors are all men, all white,” Ms. Monaco said. “They move in circles that are mostly set aside and exclusive to just men in Hollywood. Women in the U.S. have a harder time making inroads.”
Although “Roma” detailed the plight of a Mexican domestic worker, the Latin American story is far more than one of oppression, Ms. Monaco said. She pointed to a new group of Hispanic filmmakers, primarily based in the U.S., ready to tell a broader swath of stories.
Those tales won’t necessarily dwell on immigration or blue-collar issues, but will hark back to classic Hollywood tales tied to horror and romance, she said. They also may follow the path blazed by Mr. Cuaron and company.
Up-and-coming Mexican auteurs include Alonso Ruizpalacios, whose 2018 heist film “Museo” won wide acclaim, and Patricia Riggen, who directed the 2016 Christian-themed drama “Miracles from Heaven,” starring Jennifer Garner.
Mr. Berman, of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, said young Hispanic filmmakers can draw on the success of someone like Mr. Cuaron.
“They’re incredibly inspired to continue with their craft,” Mr. Berman said. “In the language field, we talk about diversity and inclusion from a teaching standpoint: having more teachers in the field who look and sound like their students. … That translates to filmmaking.”