clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Oscar nominees are the most diverse field ever, but it’s not a trend yet

New, 26 comments

Something to build on

Oscars 2017 - acting nominees of color
Dev Patel as Saroo in Lion; Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures; Ruth Negga as Mildred Loving in Loving; Viola Davis as Rose Lee Maxson in Fences.
The Weinstein Company/20th Century Fox/Focus Features/Paramount Pictures via Polygon

The nominees for the 89th Academy Awards may comprise a more diverse set of actors and filmmakers than ever before. But let’s not pretend that one good year for diversity means that “#OscarsSoWhite is a thing of the past,” as The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg declared.

As former President Barack Obama explained whenever he discussed race relations in America, it’s possible to recognize the progress we’ve made over the years while acknowledging that the work is never finished.

Perhaps the most striking and commendable element of the diversity in this year’s Oscar nominees is how widespread it is. Among the 20 nominations for acting, six went to black actors — a record for the Oscars, and a welcome development after two consecutive years of #OscarsSoWhite.

People of color also made their way into categories beyond acting. Barry Jenkins was nominated for directing and writing Moonlight, only the fourth black person to be given a nod for direction. Bradford Young became the second black cinematography nominee, for his work filming Arrival. And three of the five nominees in the feature documentary category — O.J.: Made in America, 13th and I Am Not Your Negro — tell stories of the African-American experience.

Juan (Ali) teaches Little (Hibbert) how to swim.
Mahershala Ali (right), a Best Actor nominee for Moonlight — one of the film’s six nods.
Photo: A24

Moonlight is a well-deserved front-runner, a poetic work that recognizes that the black experience and the human experience are one and the same. Hidden Figures isn’t as strong, but it’s an uplifting story of exceptionalism in a minority community. These kinds of movies, which tell positive stories about underprivileged and underrepresented people, are all too rare in Hollywood.

And that’s the key. For as much improvement as this year’s Oscar field has made over last year’s homogenous group, plenty of work remains. The nominated films about people of color are rare exceptions to what absolutely remains a rule. Most of the movies coming out of Hollywood look more like Manchester by the Sea, not Moonlight. One multicolored year at the Oscars doesn’t make for a trend; television has done a much better job recently of bringing more diversity to the table.

“While these films this year reflect the black experience, I'm still waiting for films that reflect the Latin experience, for a romantic comedy with two LGBTQ members, for a disabled or differently-abled superhero,” said April Reign, the creator of #OscarsSoWhite, to The Hollywood Reporter.

The problem isn’t just that the Oscars are so white. It’s that across the board, the most powerful forces in the movie industry are.

Nothing about this group of nominees feels like tokenism, and that’s just the way it should be. The Academy chose to highlight a variety of 2016 films featuring people of color and their stories, and those movies are rare and special enough that they would (hopefully) have been recognized in any year. It just so happens that they all hit theaters in 2016, and that the Oscar-nominated films in the preceding two years were very, very white. (You could have made the despicable argument — and many people did! — that there were simply no Oscar-worthy acting performances from people of color in 2014 or 2015. But Michael B. Jordan’s role in Creed, among other snubs, dispels that notion.)

Lion - boy reading
Sunny Pawar (left) and Deepti Naval in Lion, which picked up six nominations today.
Mark Rogers/The Weinstein Company

It would be easy to look at this year’s field and say that the Academy’s recent efforts to increase diversity among its ranks have paid off. That’s true for 2017, but there’s no way to know if this is the start of a new era for the Oscars or merely a one-time deviation from the nine-decade norm. Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has slowly been bringing more and more nonwhite people into the fold, it was just one year ago that Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced a major new effort geared toward improving diversity.

Last year’s class of about 680 new recruits was 46 percent female, and 41 percent of the group comprised people of color. It seems they’re already making their voices heard. But for now the Academy remains overwhelmingly old, white and male, and when you have Scarlett Johansson starring as a Japanese cyborg cop in the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell in 2017, it’s clear that the entire industry still has a long way to go on the diversity front.

“I think it’s important people see themselves in film, but it’s even more important they see people they maybe don’t know as well,” said Moonlight director Jenkins. Here’s hoping that a decade from now, we look back at the 2017 Oscars as a turning point — not just for the films that the Academy recognizes, but for the types of movies that get made in Hollywood in the first place.