After a two-year diversity drought in its acting categories, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences showered nominations on six African-American themed films, at least 10 black actors and filmmakers, and an Indian adventure, Lion, to boot. The directing nominations had no women; but Barry Jenkins, a young black director, scored for Moonlight — plus Ava DuVernay’s 13th was nominated in the Documentary Feature category, putting her in competition with I Am Not Your Negro from Raoul Peck and OJ: Made In America from Ezra Edelman. The black-themed Best Picture nominees were Moonlight, Fences and Hidden Figures.
Denzel Washington, Ruth Negga, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis all had acting nominations. In the other categories, Moonlight’s editor Joi McMillon, an African-American woman, shared a nomination with Nat Sanders. Writing nominations went to Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney and August Wilson. Kimberly Steward shared a producing nomination for Manchester By The Sea.
While the number of black nominees was unusually large, in a sense it marked a return to form, at least as it was known in the decade preceding 2014, when 12 Years A Slave became the first film from a black director — in this case, Steve McQueen — ever to win the Best Picture Oscar. No black filmmaker has yet won the Directing Oscar. But in the last four years, the prize went to an Asian or Hispanic director (in fact, the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition made of of Hispanic, Asian and American Indian groups said today they were disappointed at again being “noticeably underrepresented or not represented at all.”) And black actors, in the decade culminating in 2014, received a share of nominations and Oscars approximately matching their share of the U.S. population.
But the two-year shutout provoked a severe backlash, led by the #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign, followed by a strong response from the Academy, which on January 22 of last year announced a five-year drive to diversify its membership, and immediate steps to add women and ethnically diverse members to its governing board.
In truth, Hollywood has changed a great deal in the last year; but what media types like to call The Narrative has clearly shifted, as the current crop of nominees once more aligns the film business with its professed commitment to inclusiveness and progressive ideals.
The shift was already palpable at the Golden Globes ceremony on January 8, when Meryl Streep, while excoriating Donald Trump, looked around the room and proclaimed it wonderfully diverse. “What is Hollywood anyway?” Streep asked, pointing to actors from Kenya, Ethiopia, and, in the case of Viola Davis — who received her third acting nomination today, as Best Supporting Actress for Fences — South Carolina. “It’s just a bunch of people from other places.”
With a strong field of black-themed films — including Moonlight, Fences, Hidden Figures and Loving — there had been little doubt that this year would bring a strong showing for people of color. But the diversity wave was momentarily broken when The Birth Of A Nation, a Nat Turner slave rebellion story that had widely been viewed as the early best picture front-runner, crashed amid the uproar over renewed discussion of the past rape acquittal of its star-writer-director-producer Nate Parker. (On Tuesday, Birth took no nominations.)
Taking no chances, the Academy changed its procedures for announcing the nominations, shutting the media out of what used to be a live event, and substituting video presentations by 11 past honorees. (On its website, the sound and video were maddeningly out of sync throughout the presentation.) Though the Academy membership still skews old, white and male — the group’s aggressive diversity initiative won’t have full effect for years — no old, white, non-Hispanic figured among the video presenters. In fact there was only one straight white man in the group, 39-year-old director Jason Reitman. The rest including Terrence Howard, Jennifer Hudson, Ken Watanabe, Guillermo del Toro, and Glenn Close and Lance Black represented what the Academy has said it intends to become, a diverse coalition of the talented.