Tuesday morning’s Academy Award nominations included several historic nomination for women and people of color, including Rachel Morrison, Jordan Peele, and Greta Gerwig. However, the biggest victory may belong to the transgender representation of two smaller films, Best Documentary nominee “Strong Island” and Best Foreign Film nominee “A Fantastic Woman.”
With Yance Ford’s “Strong Island,” a powerful and deeply personal film about the murder of Ford’s brother, he became the first transgender director of an Oscar-nominated film. After many years producing documentaries, “Strong Island” is Ford’s first feature-length film.
“A Fantastic Woman” stars Chilean transgender actress Daniela Vega, and the significance of her casting cannot be overstated; playing trans has long been a one-way ticket to Oscar glory for cisgender actors like Jared Leto and Hillary Swank. Transgender advocates decry such performances as treating trans identity as nothing more than a good makeup job, contributing to the discrimination and violence trans people regularly experience. Vega is the heart and soul of the film, and even though she was not nominated for her performance, her work is recognized with the movie’s nomination.
This is not the first time a transgender person has been nominated for an Oscar. In 2016, Anohni became the first transgender performer to be nominated, for the song “Manta Ray” from documentary “Racing Extinction.” Songwriter Angela Morley received two scoring nominations in the 1970s (“The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella” and “The Little Prince”) and VFX artist Paige Warner received a technical achievement award. In an essay explaining her decision not to attend the ceremony, Anohni wrote: “Identity politics are often used as a smokescreen to distract us from this viral culture of wealth extraction.”
Smokescreen or not, visibility matters. And these two films deserve all of the accolades coming to them for living their truth and making good movies. It is also notable that both Ford and Vega are people of color, another overdue area of improvement for the Academy that made great strides this year.
“Strong Island” does not directly deal with LGBT themes, making its nomination all the more significant. In fact, it’s likely that many voters had no idea Ford was transgender. Its message, however, is just as urgent. “Strong Island” makes a personal detective story out of the ashes of racial violence and the ways the judicial system fails to protect black people. Through emotional interviews and family archives, Ford painstakingly tells the story of his brother William’s untimely death at the hands of a young white man in 1992. In the movie’s most meta moments, the director carefully examines his memories of that time, questioning the value of storytelling if it alters personal history. Expertly weaving the personal and the political, “Strong Island” is a masterful achievement worthy of an Academy Award.
“A Fantastic Woman” is entirely about transgender narratives, but transcends cliché as effortlessly as Marina (Vega) serenades her lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes). The second in a trifecta of films about women from “Gloria” director Sebastian Lelio, “A Fantastic Woman” places Marina at the center of her narrative. The first act delivers a touching romance between Marina and Orlando, making it all the more heartbreaking when he dies in her arms. As Marina contends with Orlando’s family, most of whom would like her to quietly go away, she must fight for her right to mourn the man she loved.
Lelio does not shy away from showing the discrimination Marina faces, and a few of scenes are difficult to stomach. With Vega acting as creative consultant on the film, Marina is a powerful and three-dimensional character with full agency. “A Fantastic Woman” is a magical film about love, loss, and the desire to be seen.
Amidst these historic firsts, who could forget “Call Me by Your Name”? Luca Guadagnino’s lush gay romance also did very well, earning four nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Performance for Timothée Chalamet. “In a Heartbeat,” an animated short film about a crush between two young boys, was a shortlisted film that wasn’t nominated.