Late September is usually far too early for definitive Academy Award predictions, but on this one I’m solid: This year’s film slate will inevitably yield an Oscars Less White.
Some small credit can go to the Academy, which pushed the diversity needle just a tad by adding twice as many new voters as last year (683, almost half of whom were women or people of color).
However, the most significant reason we’re unlikely to see a repeat of last year — when every single one of the 20 acting nominations went to white thespians — is the movies. Last year, films like “Beasts of No Nation,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Concussion,” and “Creed” boasted diverse ensembles before and behind the screen, but they were less-than-Academy-friendly. In 2016, there are at least 8 films that present as strong awards candidates with diverse talent, and they are a far more formidable selection.
While actor-director Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” was considered an early frontrunner — indeed, Oscar perennial Fox Searchlight plunked down $17.5 million to acquire the Sundance hit in January — plenty of other options have emerged. (Not among them is Reginald Hudlin’s biopic “Marshall,” starring Chadwick Boseman as the young lawyer who eventually becomes Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, which will open in 2017.)
While some of these ultimately may not make the Oscar grade, check out the many nomination possibilities (listed in alphabetical order). The industry has a long way to go in terms of producing movies that reflect the world we live in, but at least this year’s Oscar voters have more from which to choose.
Assets: It’s true that while Forrest Whitaker does play a standard-issue government official in this alien visitation drama, the main cast and director Denis Villeneuve are white. But the film is gorgeous to watch, and its notable cinematographer is never-nominated Bradford Young (“Selma”).
Liabilities: Young’s resume is still a tad slim, and getting recognition from this branch often takes time. Roger Deakins (“Hail, Caesar!”) usually nabs a slot.
Nominations: Cinematography is always a competitive category, but this is a sumptuous-looking, well-designed studio entry, and Young’s stellar reputation is on the rise.
“The Birth of a Nation”
Assets: Given its electric Sundance premiere and record-breaking acquisition, “The Birth of A Nation” became the first entry in the 2016 Oscar race among all films. The Academy not only loves a true story well told (see: “Spotlight,” “Argo,” “12 Years A Slave”), but the #oscarssowhite controversy promised to shine an even greater light on Parker and “Nation.” Distributor Fox Searchlight has notched 13 Best Picture nominations in the past 12 years, more than any other company. They proved victorious with “Birdman” two years ago and positioned “Nation” as their top contender this fall.
Critics: Metacritic stands at 76%.
Liabilities: Where to begin? Parker’s narrative about spending 10 years developing this film about Nat Turner at the expense of his surging acting career (“Beyond the Lights”) is dwarfed by his Penn State college rape scandal. Parker and Searchlight tried to manage the damage by providing Parker for extended trade interviews back in August, but the hits kept coming with further damaging revelations, public backlash, and Parker’s own fumbles in trying to explain his behavior. Searchlight plowed ahead with a planned Toronto press junket, where the violent slave rebellion played well ahead of its October 7 commercial release. Now they may have to settle for a movie that plays best for the African-American audience as opposed to a crossover Oscar player.
Nominations: If the movie opens with decent reviews, supporting actors such as Aja Naomi King and Armie Hammer might have a shot. However, the movie’s early pole position turns out to have been a negative; many Academy members view Parker as an upstart who has yet to earn credibility outside the acting ranks.
Assets: Denzel Washington’s past directorial efforts (“Antwone Fisher” and “The Great Debaters”) were well received. Expectations are high for August Wilson’s adaptation of his play, which Washington headlined opposite Viola Davis in the 2010 Tony-winning revival (like the film, produced by Scott Rudin). Both actors are reprising their roles as a couple in ’50s Pittsburgh.
Liabilities: It’s tough to adapt stage dramas for the cinema. And Paramount will be pushing this late in the season without a boost from the fall festivals; that proved a challenge for Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” which launched at November’s AFI FEST. But “Fences” has the advantage of being a known commodity that will certainly be a must-see.
Nominations: Unless the movie is a complete dud, expect acting nods for Washington and Viola Davis.
20th Century Fox
Assets: Twentieth Century Fox used the Toronto International Film Festival to introduce footage from “Hidden Figures,” a movie directed by Theodore Melfi (Bill Murray vehicle “St. Vincent”) starring Golden Globe winner (“Empire”) and Emmy and Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and Supporting Actress Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) and based on the true story of mathematicians working behind-the-scenes at NASA on the ’60s space race. That’s assuming that Elizabeth Gabler’s label Fox 2000 (“Life of Pi,” “The Devil Wears Prada”) lands a late 2016 release date and a studio Oscar campaign. So far, so good — the footage played well.
Liabilities: Late entries always have some catching up to do.
Nominations: If they score in their roles, popular Henson and Spencer are strong bets.
“The Jungle Book”
Assets: Don’t count out one of the most popular films of the year, Jon Favreau’s Rudyard Kipling adaptation “The Jungle Book” (Disney). Like Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” the gorgeously wrought global blockbuster could emerge as a strong contender with support from all the crafts. Starring live-action child actor Neel Sethi, the film’s animated animals are voiced by the likes of Lupita Nyong’o, Idris Elba, and Giancarlo Esposito.
Critics: It’s at 77 on Metacritic.
Liabilities: The film’s April 16 release date is not ideal, as Disney will have to bring the mainstream adventure back into the minds of Academy voters, most of whom tend to prefer live-action to animated fare. Despite the film’s blockbuster status as a wide-audience movie that grossed $963.9 million worldwide, they may regard the hybrid “The Jungle Book” as an animated family film that doesn’t have sufficient gravitas. Sometimes being too successful can be a negative. (See: Honorary Oscar-winner George Lucas. He was nominated just four times, for writing and directing “American Graffiti” and for the original “Star Wars.”)
Nominations: The producers, directors, writers, editors, music, and visual effects branches should recognize Favreau and his team’s extraordinary accomplishments.
Assets: Focus Features launched the ’60s biopic at Cannes, where the heart-tugging Jeff Nichols drama emerged with Oscar buzz. “Loving” is a compelling true story boasting two acting contenders (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) that opens up discussions on America’s fraught relationship with race.
Critics: So far it’s at 74% on Metacritic.
Liabilities: The indie movie is both small and, well, quiet. While many critics appreciate Nichols’ admirable restraint as a storyteller who pursues authenticity rather than manipulating audiences with dramatic swells, this could cost the movie in terms of playability with audiences and Academy voters.
Nominations: As a biracial couple fighting to express their love freely, the Academy actors branch should recognize well-regarded Joel Edgerton (who scored raves for supporting roles in Australian drama “Animal Kingdom,” Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” and Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass”) as well as relative newcomer Irish actress Ruth Negga.
Assets: A24 introduced the indie drama, Barry Jenkins’ sophomore feature effort after “Medicine and Melancholy,” at Telluride and Toronto. Backed by Brad Pitt’s Plan B, which has delivered a string of Oscar-winners (“12 Years a Slave,” “Selma,” “The Big Short”), “Moonlight” has critics grasping for fresh adjectives to praise the drama based on Tarell McCraney’s play about a vulnerable young boy who turns into an angry teenager and later a beautiful black ex-con still hungry for love.
Critics: Unanimously hailed at 98% on Metacritic.
Liabilities: The small-scale Miami story comes from an indie filmmaker-on-the-rise as yet little known by the mainstream Academy. However, you could have said the same of Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” and Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” As A24 proved with “Room,” “Ex Machina” and “Amy” last year, it’s a question of getting on the voters’ radar, and the fall festivals have already amplified the early buzz.
Nominations: Emmy nominee and new Academy member Mahershala Ali (“House of Cards”) breaks out of the ensemble as a drug dealer who mentors the young boy, as does British actress Naomie Harris as the boy’s drug-addict mother. But this one has the right stuff to go all the way to Best Picture, director, and adapted screenplay as well. Critics will push this one, too.
“Queen of Katwe”
Assets: One of two runners up for the TIFF audience award (itself considered a prelude to Oscar contention) was Disney’s moving female-empowerment drama, directed by Kampala resident Mira Nair in the Uganda slums with a cast of local unknowns led by stars David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o.
Critics: 73% on Metacritic.
Liabilities: Disney doesn’t seem to know how to market this crowdpleaser, which is more than a formula sports film. It opened soft. The studio needs to turn it into a must-see.
Nominations: Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o could nab her second Supporting Actress nomination for her juicy role as a fierce mother trying to help her chess-playing daughter escape the slums.
The Weinstein Company
Assets: Weinstein Co.’s designated Oscar contender “Lion” hit big with audiences and critics in Toronto (it was the other runner-up to audience winner “La La Land”). Directed by Australian Garth Davis, the true-story tearjerker stars Dev Patel as a man using Google Earth to search for his long-lost family.
Critics: Right now the movie is at 61%, a tad lower than the usual Oscar contender. (Even anomaly “Crash” sits at 69%.)
Liabilities: This could become a ‘tweener, a four-hankie drama that plays well for mainstream audiences but doesn’t muster the kind of awards-group support it needs to compete. The movie tries to give Nicole Kidman (the lost Indian child’s adoptive mother) and Rooney Mara (the grown man’s supportive girlfriend) something to do, but they are window dressing for the real story, which Patel ably carries. He also delivered in British import “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” which was an unlikely arthouse hit for Bleecker Street ($3.8 million).
Nominations: While rookie director Davis (he’s best known for his commercials) does a superb job executing this drama, BAFTA nominee “Slumdog Millionaire” star Patel is the film’s best shot in a more mature role. BAFTA may also give the film a boost.