On Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce their slate of Oscar nominees, a lineup that will certainly be eyed with much scrutiny for its diversity. Last year, the #OscarsSoWhite controversy exploded after people of color were noticeably left off the Academy’s ballot for the second year in a row — a move backward considering 2014’s Best Picture winner, “12 Years A Slave.” Given the films that found success in 2016, both critically and commercially, the list of nominees should successfully change the tide.
The origins of the hash-tagged tumult, which had notables like Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith boycotting the ceremony last year, are two-fold. For starters, the Academy’s makeup is not diverse by any measure — a Los Angeles Times analysis in 2016 found it was 91 percent white and 76 percent male. Secondly, the industry was not producing many quality films made by, or featuring, people of color.
When the nominations came out last year, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is black, promised immediate action. Following a unanimous vote by the board eight days later, rule changes stipulated that members who had been dormant in the industry for over a decade would be be moved to emeritus status (effectively losing their voting rights) and the recruitment of new members would begin immediately. Though, past winners and nominees retain full membership status and voting rights. The list of 683 invitees contained a notable presence of women and people of color (Rita Wilson, American Repertory Theater stalwart Cherry Jones, Nia Long, Mahershala Ali now in “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures,” and John Boyega).
The industry too, almost as if on cue, made an initial, responsive roar when Nate Parker’s slave uprising saga, “Birth of a Nation,” garnered a record-setting $17 million distribution deal at the Sundance Film Festival in late January of last year. Expectations for the film were high, but when it finally poured into theaters, the edgy concept of a bloody revolt against injustice, while admirable, didn’t measure up at the box office. “12 Years a Slave” it was not and Parker’s past allegations of rape (he was acquitted) didn’t help either.
In light of “Oscars So White,” “Birth of a Nation” registered something of a disappointment, but the industry, in its own organic way, was quietly on the mend. The later crop of films featuring diverse filmmakers, casts and subjects shone — from “Moonlight,” the saga of a gay black youth, bullied and growing up under the negligent eye of a crack-addicted mother, to “Loving,” the haunting recount of the interracial couple who boldly broke the anti-miscegenation law in segregated Virginia and, more recently “Hidden Figures,” another based on true events, pre-civil rights movement drama about African-American female mathematicians working at NASA during the space race. Overall, 2016 was a year the blockbuster faltered and small films about people with varying backgrounds and experiences, navigating adversity, took center stage.
Performance wise, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis tear it up in “Fences,” the Washington-helmed adaptation of August Wilson’s play about the prideful struggles of a hard working — and hard drinking — African-American man in 1950s Pittsburgh. Both are sure to receive Oscar nods in the acting categories. Octavia Spencer will likely be recognized for her supporting work in “Hidden Figures,” while co-star Taraji P. Henson could find herself in the leading actress mix as well. From “Moonlight,” Naomie Harris as the flawed mother and Mahershala Ali as the boy’s intervening mentor are deserving, if outside, selections in the supporting categories.
Ruth Negga, more than superb as the reflective wife in “Loving,” too has a shot in what looks like to be a very competitive Best Actress field (with the talented Isabelle Huppert, Emma Stone, Amy Adams and Natalie Portman expected to be in the running). What she achieves is not so much acting with a capital A, but emoting and projecting in subtle, palpable ways that affect from the inside out. Her co-star Joel Edgerton who plays spouse Richard Loving, the white half of the union, looks to be a lock for a nomination and if that brings light and exposure to the film, there’s a victory in that alone.
As for the bigger awards, “Moonlight,” which has already taken home the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture (as a drama) has a legitimate shot at the little bald guy for the Best Picture category (“La La Land” and “Jackie” to be its odds on toughest competition). The film’s writer/director Barry Jenkins should hear his name called for his work behind the camera and perhaps for his adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” “Hidden Figures” also could figure into the Best Picture race.
Over in the documentary field, Ezra Edelman’s near eight-hour contemplation on race, celebrity and justice, “O.J.: Made in America,” looks certain to be on the list of the final five. It’s not only an incredibly well-made and tightly focused film, but in the historical probing background material, it becomes a chronicle of the African-American condition over the past six decades. Most telling is the young Johnnie Cochran trying a white police officer in a Los Angeles courtroom in the 1950s, and because of the times, he was not allowed to address the officer on the stand directly but had to speak through a court assigned intermediary, who was white. Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not You Negro,” which looks at the African-American struggle both pre- and post-civil rights movement through the words of author, activist and critic James Baldwin, is also on the Best Documentary short list and could join “O.J.” as a finalist.
The one thing to keep in mind as the nominations roll in is that Hollywood has always prided itself on pushing the envelope and being a champion of social causes (take Sidney Poitier’s great post-civil rights movement double bill of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night” that ripped open the conversation on race in middle America in 1967). And when it comes time to recognize quality, the Academy tends to choose stories of human struggle and adversity over broad entertainment (i.e. “Annie Hall” besting “Star Wars in 1978).
The changes to the Academy’s membership structure are likely to help adjust focus and vision, but what’s clearly more effective is the production of more films that represent a diverse population. “Birth of a Nation” may not have been the answer, but you have to marvel at the three-pronged success (socially, critically and commercially) of “Hidden Figures.” If a year ago you told anyone that a feel-good movie about three African American women in pre-civil rights America would be crushing the latest from Martin Scorsese and Ben Affleck at the box office, you’d likely elicit incredulous looks. Next, hopefully the industry will broaden its scope to better cover other underrepresented populations.