Last week at AFI FEST, the 2014-15 awards season took one of its most major twists yet when the festival showed Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” at the last minute. It has originally been planned that Paramount would simply screen a 30-minute preview, but then just two days before, DuVernay sent this tweet out to none other than Oprah Winfrey (who produced “Selma” and has a small role), and it became clear the wait for “Selma” was about to be over:
It wouldn’t become clear until just after the film’s actual screening that a much longer, much more remarkable (in the worst possible sense) wait may also about to be over. DuVernay seems like she’s in an excellent position to become the first woman of color to ever be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Obviously that’s not a certainty. There are still five weeks until “Selma” even comes out, and three more after that before Oscar voters ultimately decide whether or not it is the major contender these early screenings suggest it is. But there’s no way “Selma” won’t at least be a big part of the awards season conversation as things start to rev up, and it’s important to take a step back before that all goes down and realize what a big deal that will be.
Now obviously the following is not breaking news. Year after year, articles bring
up the atrocious lack of diversity at the Oscars. But with good
reason: The numbers are insane. Females make up roughly 51% of the
American population, while 13% of the country is Black or African-American. But neither
demographic makes up over one percent of the nominations for Best
Director at the Academy Awards. Woody Allen has seriously been
nominated for as many Best Director Oscars than all female and black filmmakers combined ever.
There have been 423 Oscar nominations handed out for Best Director over the years. Of them, four have gone to females (all of them white), and three have gone to black filmmakers (all of them male). Here’s a quick rundown in both regards:
Female Best Director Nominees:
Film: “Seven Beauties”
Lost To: John G. Avildsen for “Rocky”
Film: “The Piano”
Lost To: Steven Spielberg for “Schindler’s List”
Film: “Lost in Translation”
Lost To: Peter Jackson for “The Lord of the Rings”
Film: “The Hurt Locker”
Lost To: No one!
Black Best Director Nominees:
Film: “Boyz in the Hood”
Lost To: Jonathan Demme for “The Silence of the Lambs”
Lost To: Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker”
Film: “12 Years a Slave”
Lost To: Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity”
If Ava DuVernay ends up getting nominated this year, we should be fully aware of what an incredibly historic moment that will be with respect to the above trajectory. And of course, there’s scenarios to reasonably fantasize about that even go beyond that. What if DuVernay wins? Or what if Angelina Jolie (whose husband Brad Pitt oddly enough produced “Selma”), is nominated too for “Unbroken,” which is about to start screening and has Oscar written all over it? For once, we’d almost not have any reason to complain.
It’s important to note that while things are nowhere near close to ideal, progress seems to be accelerating. Of the seven filmmakers noted above, three got their Oscar nominations in the past five years. And in one of those years a female filmmaker and a black filmmaker were both nominated in Kathryn Bigelow and Lee Daniels, with Bigelow ultimately winning. In 2012, Ang Lee became the first non-white filmmaker to win two Best Director Oscars. And last year, of course, Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” became the first film directed by a black person to win Best Picture. Though it should also be noted that within these five years of “progress,” white men still directed of the 38 of the 47 Best Picture nominees. Which makes cause for any real celebration hard to swallow.
But DuVernay — and Jolie — could collectively raise the pathetic bar for diversity at the Oscars quite significantly this year. It’s way too early to know how possible that scenario is, but it’s not too early to acknowledge how important that would be on so many levels. Obviously, it suggests that the Oscars and the industry and society it represents are finally making some significant inroads with respect to filmmakers who aren’t white men. But more over, it creates such a grand stage for young people who aren’t white men everywhere to feel that they are represented too.
Peter Knegt is Indiewire’s Contributing Editor and awards columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
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