BY NATHAN DUKE
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences came under fire last year after its nominations were found to be lacking in diversity, sparking a backlash known as “Oscars So White.”
After this year’s Oscar nominees were unveiled in January, it became clear that the Academy Awards had paid attention to last year’s criticisms. And how couldn’t they?
This year’s slate of nominated films is among the most diverse ever assembled in the academy’s history, but those who argue against fulfilling quotas for nominations won’t have room to gripe. If people of color have been more widely represented among this year’s nominees, one of the reasons is that 2016 was a landmark year for black cinema.
Three of the nine films in the Best Picture category—Barry Jenkins’ critically adored “Moonlight,” Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play “Fences” and Theodore Melfi’s “Hidden Figures”—examined the black experience in America. At least one other film regarding race relations—Jeff Nichols’ “Loving”—nabbed a Best Actress nomination for Ruth Negga.
And between the three Best Picture nominees, there was a total of 15 nominations—eight for “Moonlight,” four for “Fences” and three for “Hidden Figures.”
Most remarkably, perhaps, was the fact that the three documentaries that are considered the most likely to win an Oscar make up a remarkable diorama of race relations in the 20th and 21st centuries—Ezra Edelman’s incredible eight-hour “O.J. Made in America,” Ava DuVernay’s powerful prison-system doc “13th” and Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” which uses author James Baldwin as a window into the Civil Rights Movement.
The year’s diverse roster also includes a Best Picture nominee featuring an India-themed story and lead (“Lion”), a documentary about the European migration crisis (“Fire at Sea”) and movies in the Best Foreign Film category—which is often the sole place to find a diverse array of films—that focus on everything from life in Iran (“The Salesman”) or among Pacific Islanders (Australia’s “Tanna”) to feminism and workplace sexism (Germany’s “Toni Erdmann”).
Since the beginning of the 20th century, there have been—prior to this year— exactly seven movies nominated for Best Picture that reflected the black experience in the United States. Three of the films (“Selma,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Precious”) were made by black filmmakers, while the other four (“Django Unchained,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “The Help” and “Ray”) were by white directors.
And with his nomination, Jenkins became the fourth black filmmaker to get the nod. Previous nominees were Steve McQueen (for 2013’s “12 Years a Slave”), Lee Daniels (for 2009’s “Precious”) and John Singleton (for 1991’s “Boyz n the Hood”). And yes, you read that correctly: Spike Lee has never been nominated for Best Director.
Black History Month is coming to a close, and a great way to round out February is to watch the four nominated films (“Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” “O.J. Made in America” and “I Am Not Your Negro”) that focus on the black experience in the 20th century; one that explores it now (“Moonlight”); and another that looks at both (“13th”).
This year’s Grammy Awards raised a few eyebrows after Beyoncé’s widely praised “Lemonade” lost the three top prizes for which it was nominated, even prompting winner Adele to question her wins. Perhaps the Grammys will follow the Oscars’ example next year.