From the surface, it might seem that diversity as judged by this year’s Oscar nominee list didn’t reach last year’s record heights, because it’s down from a historic nine people of color in 2021. All nominees for best actress and best supporting actor are white. In reality, there are several highlights that deserve our attention which include four African American actors being recognized along with deaf actors, LGBTQ, women, and Asian filmmakers in the best director race.
Now to the best actor race; many insiders believe that Will Smith is a major contender for his sturdy performance as father of tennis greats, Serena and Venus Williams, Richard. “King Richard” is hands-down an inspirational sports film. And if Smith does win, he would join a list that includes the late Sidney Poitier, Forest Whitaker, Jamie Foxx, and Denzel Washington, who is also nominated (his ninth acting Oscar nomination) this year for “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
In the best supporting actress race we have “King Richard” co-star Aunjanue Ellis and Afro Latina star Ariana DeBose for her performance as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.”
Oscar history is clear that to date, only nine African American women have won acting Oscars, with the first being Hattie McDaniel (1939) for “Gone with the Wind,” with Regina King the most recent in (2018) for “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Eight of those winners were for supporting roles, with Halle Berry being the only Black woman to win for a leading role with “Monster’s Ball” in 2001. Technically Lupita Amondi Nyong’o is a Kenyan-Mexican actress. She’s the first Mexican actress to win an Academy Award which she did for her role in “12 Years A Slave” (2013).
On the LGBTQ front, two queer women received acting nominations this year, with their first nominations: the aforementioned DeBose, and Kristen Stewart for best lead actress in “Spencer.” And not to be overlooked is the documentary “Flee,” which features a queer refugee story, which earned three nominations.
Staying firmly on the issue of diversity, the best supporting actor category has Troy Kotsur as the second deaf actor to be nominated for an Oscar for his work in the film “CODA.” Kotsur plays a deaf fisherman who forms a workers co-op with his hearing daughter as his translator. He co-stars with Marlee Matlin who is the only other deaf Oscar nominee and winner in history, winning “Children of a Lesser God” (1986).
Now to the appalling lack of women directors in the industry; it’s a celebration for feminists (and everyone, to be frank) that Jane Campion is making Oscars history. The writer-director is now the first woman to be nominated twice for the best director honors, picking up her second nod for “The Power of the Dog.”
Campion was also nominated in 1994 for “The Piano,” a period drama that follows a mute piano player and her daughter in 19th century New Zealand and although she lost that year, she won the Academy Award for best original screenplay.
Remember the definition of diversity. Also making history in the best director race is Ryusuke Hamaguchi, whose three-hour drama “Drive My Car” has wowed critics around the world and has become the 14th non-English film in Oscar history to be nominated for Best Picture. This makes Hamaguchi just the third Japanese filmmaker and the first since 1985 to be nominated for best director, joining legendary directors Hiroshi Teshigahara for “Women in the Dunes” (1964).
There has been progress since the #OscarsSoWhite calling out of 2015 and subsequent years of nominations that brought an outcry, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences continues to do the necessary work to diversify its membership to include more women and people of color.
In 2020 the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced new representation and inclusion standards for Oscars eligibility in the best picture category, as part of its Academy Aperture 2025 initiative.
Change is coming a bit too slow for some and I suspect, a bit too fast for others. As of 2021, 33% of active academy members were women (up from 25% in 2015) and 19% were from underrepresented racial or ethnic communities (up from 10% in 2015).
The Oscars has since further diversified its new membership classes: its 2021 membership class is 46% women (up from 45% in 2020), and 39% of the class is from underrepresented ethnic/racial communities (up from 36% in 2020).
So the facts point to a shift in the entertainment industry but it’s not enough and creatives of color can never stop pushing for equality. And here’s the most uncomfortable truth: that once “equality” is achieved the push to keep it will be even harder.
So, buckle up fam[ily] the struggle is real and it will never, ever, ever stop.
For a complete list of nominees, visit the official Oscars website, www.oscar.com.
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