The nominations are out and word on the street is that the Oscars are finally not so white. But despite some interesting picks—including nine out of ten Best Picture films made outside the confines of the studio system—most of the nominations have been fairly predictable.
La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s ode to jazz and Hollywood, leads with a total of 14 nominations. No surprise there as no on loves a movie about Hollywood more than Hollywood itself (see: The Artist, Argo, Birdman). Next up, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Denis Villenueve’s Arrival each have 8 nominations. Festival favorites based on tried and true genres also gained recognition such as Lion, Manchester By the Sea and Hell Or Highwater. But not everyone made the cut – Birth of a Nation, which earned a standing ovation and a $17.5 million Fox Searchlight acquisition at Sundance, was unable to survive the backlash from writer-director-star Nate Parker’s rape charges. It failed to garner any recognition from the Academy.
What’s the Oscars without snubs and surprises? In a year filled with remarkable roles for women, nods were noticeably absent for Amy Adams (Arrival), Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures) and Annette Benning (20th Century Women). Meryl Streep picked up a Best Actress nomination for her role in the box-office bomb Florence Foster Jenkins, proving her lasting star power and landing another record-setting 20th nomination. Other surprises include an acting nod for Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals), a directing nod for Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge) and a sole cinematography nod for Martin Scorsese’s Silence.
After two years of #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy finally got the memo: They need to do better. And they sort of did. Despite its critical and commercial success, it was unclear if the Academy’s mostly old, white male voters would be open to Moonlight’s exploration of race and black masculinity. Great to see the old folks actually came out to play and gave the film its due respect. They also opened up to other black stories including the powerful drama Fences and Hidden Figures. The voters apparently resonated with the untold true tale about the black women mathematicians who sent American men to space.
Other notable picks are the six black actors nominated for their excellent performances: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences, Ruth Negga in Loving, Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris in Moonlight and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures. Equally significant are English-Indian Dev Patel’s Best Supporting Actor nomination for Lion, Bradford Young’s Best Cinematography nod for Arrival (he is the second black nominee ever in this category) and nominations for Disney’s Pacific Islander musical Moana including Best Animated Picture and Best Original Song for How Far I’ll Go by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda (if he wins, he’ll be able to claim EGOT status). Perhaps most significantly, the Best Documentary category includes prescient and politically charged films by black directors Ava DuVernay (13th), Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro) and Ezra Edelman (for the incisive ESPN documentary O.J.: Made in America).
It is exciting to see an array of new films and filmmakers getting the recognition they deserve. It feels like the tides are finally shifting and the Academy’s old, white patriarchy is finally changing for the better. But despite some promising picks, the majority of the nominees were fairly predictable festival favorites and Academy darlings. The nominations were blacker but not necessarily more diverse. And I’m still trying to figure out why Passengers and Suicide Squad are Oscar nominated while The Handmaiden is not. The Academy can and should do much better.
Here’s hoping we’ll see more Oscar nominated (and winning) films representing folks of all backgrounds, colors, experiences, ages and so forth. And movies that truly push the boundaries of cinema instead of merely throwing back to the good old days. Is it too much to ask the Academy to vote for movies that we’ll remember for years on end? Maybe – the Oscars ceremony is just a big spectacle full of pomp and circumstance after all. But perhaps that’s all the more reason to throw a wrench into the plans and try something new. An unpredictable Oscars would certainly be much more fun to watch.