Oscars are not so white anymore
January 30, 2017
Filed under The Edge
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Amid a dizzying week of political brouhaha fueled by, among other things, President Donald Trump’s use of executive powers in his first week as president, Press Secretary Sean Spicer all but yelling lies at White House reporters about Trump’s inauguration crowd size and presidential counsel Kellyanne Conway claiming, in an Orwellian nature, that the White House will be defending itself with “alternative facts,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released its list of films nominated for Academy Awards for the upcoming Oscars ceremony next month.
This year’s nominations are filled with romantic comedy musicals, science-fiction dramas, historical biographical films and familial dramas. “La La Land,” the musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, received 14 nominations, which tied James Cameron’s 1997 epic “Titanic” for most nominations by a single film. Meryl Streep, nominated in the ‘Actress in a Leading Role’ category for her portrayal as the titular character in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” now has 20 Academy Award nominations, more than any other actor or actress in history. Katharine Hepburn and Jack Nicholson hold second place at 12 nominations.
This year’s Oscars ceremony will be celebrated and remembered for two principle reasons. The first being that, for another year, large movie studios failed to populate the “Best Picture” category. “Arrival,” the alien sci-fi film starring Amy Adams, and “Fences,” directed and starring Denzel Washington, were distributed by Paramount, but only at the last minute after being almost entirely independently funded. “Hidden Figures,” a powerful drama about female African-American mathematicians in early days of NASA, was produced by 20th Century Fox.
“La La Land” was produced by Lionsgate, a large studio but nowhere near as large as 20th Century Fox or Universal. A24, an up-and-coming independent studio, produced “Moonlight.” Finally, Amazon Studios, known for its television production, produced and distributed “Manchester by the Sea,” a drama starring Casey Affleck.
Another reason this year’s Oscars ceremony will be remembered is the diversity of the actors, actresses and directors nominated. Throughout much of the ceremony’s history, there had always existed a persistent lack of diversity among those nominated. In 1939, 12 years after the awards started, Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Academy Award for acting. It wasn’t until 1958 when Sidney Poitier became the first African-American to be nominated for Best Actor. Five years later, in 1963, Poitier became the first African-American to actually win Best Actor.
In more recent years, specifically 2015 and 2016, the social media movement “OscarsSoWhite” developed on Twitter and Facebook, after the release of those years’ nominations, which included no actors of color. This year, though, the diversity is widespread, especially in acting categories. For the first time in the Oscars history, there is an actor or actress of African descent in every category.
“Hidden Figures,” “Fences” and “Moonlight,” films that have African-Americans in leading roles, are all nominated for Best Picture. Denzel Washington is nominated for Best Actor for his role in “Fences.” Ruth Negga, an Ethiopian-Irish actress, is nominated for Best Actress for her role in “Loving.” Mahershala Ali is nominated for his role “Moonlight.” Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Naomie Harris, are all nominated for Best Supporting Actress for their respective roles in “Fences,” “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight.”
The diversity of the nominations is beyond acting talents, too. Bradford Young became the first African-American to be nominated for Best Cinematography for his work on “Arrival.” Barry Jenkins, the director of “Moonlight,” became the fourth African-American director in Oscars history to be nominated for Best Director. Joi McMillon became the first African-American to be nominated for Best Film Editing since Hugh Robertson in 1969. Ava DuVernay and Ezra Edelman became the first African-American to receive an Oscar nomination for “Best Documentary Feature.”
The sudden spring of diversity does not, in any way, make Hollywood’s history of whitewashing and sameness acceptable. The U.S. is a pluralistic and diverse society with millions of blacks, Hispanics, Latinos, American Indians and Pacific Islanders. Hollywood should continue this trend to reflect a changing American landscape not for the sole reason of representing different races and ethnicities but to produce meaning and reason for defending the arts that represent everyone.