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From Spike Lee to Alfonso Cuarón: Why #OscarsSoWhite May Take a Break in 2019

Thanks to "Black Panther," "Roma," and "Green Book," the most diverse lineup in Academy history could mean a boost for Oscar ratings.



Focus Features

Oscar viewership sank to record lows last year, but diversity among its 2019 nominees could provide the Academy Awards celebration with a much-needed ratings jolt. Inclusion sells: A 2015 Nielsen report found that the more diverse the major-category nominees, the larger the audience.

In the past, there was less the Academy could do to influence that income; it’s hard to vote on movies that haven’t been made. This year, however, there are indications that the Hollywood pipeline has responded to the demands of April Reign’s 2015 hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. (It may not be coincidental that four years is also a rough estimate of the time required for a film to move from inception to awards consideration.)

Read More: Oscars 2019 Shut Out Female Filmmakers in Best Director and Best Picture Races

At the risk of damning with faint praise, this year’s nominees may represent the most diverse in Academy history — enough for the hashtag to take a well-deserved vacation. The nominees include two directors of color (in past years, even one was rare) and five of the eight Best Picture nominees centered around people of color.

The highlight of the year is probably “Black Panther,” which received seven nominations, including Best Picture, as well as Best Score, Best Original Song, Costume Design, and Production Design (making Hannah Beachler the first black production designer to be nominated).

However, the lead actor and actress categories continue to be the least diverse: Even in the best years, there is typically no more than one nominee of color, a trend dogs all of this year’s acting categories. Too often, plum roles in Oscar-caliber films continue to elude actors and actresses of color.

Here’s how it breaks down, by category.

Marvel Studios' BLACK PANTHER..L to R: Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba)..Photo: Matt Kennedy..©Marvel Studios 2018

“Black Panther”


Best Picture

The year’s nominations represent the most diverse lineup for this category since 2016, when “Moonlight,” “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” and “Lion” were all nominees, with “Moonlight” eventually winning. This year’s nominees ticking the diversity box include “Black Panther,” “Roma,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “Green Book” (although this one should come with an asterisk), and “Bohemian Rhapsody” (a biopic on rock band Queen, whose lead singer, Freddie Mercury, was of Indian heritage and bisexual).

Noteworthy here is that “Black Panther” also makes history as the first superhero film to score a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

Overlooked: Snubbed was Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same name.

Spike Lee'BlacKkKlansman' film photocall, Madrid, Spain - 23 Oct 2018

Spike Lee

Mortimer Petessen/DYDPPA/REX/Shutterstock

Best Director

With “BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee finally received a directing nomination — the first in his 33-year, 30-film career. It’s also only the sixth time that a black director has been nominated; no black director has never won Best Director in the history of the awards ceremony.

Meanwhile, Alfonso Cuarón became the first Mexican director to win the Best Director Oscar with “Gravity;” he’s now a frontrunner to win again for “Roma.”

Overlooked: Barry Jenkins (“Beale Street”), Steve McQueen (“Widows”), and “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler, although the Marvel film is selected in several other categories. A win by either Cuarón or Lee would mark a huge win in the diversity column.

Rami Malek

Rami Malek


Best Actor

With this nomination, also his first, Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) is only the second actor of Egyptian descent to be nominated in an acting category. His predecessor was Omar Sharif in 1962, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Sherif Ali in “Lawrence of Arabia.” (He lost to Ed Begley for his performance in “Sweet Bird of Youth.”).

Malek had the best shot at diversifying the frontrunners in this category. Four straight white men lead the field: Bradley Cooper (“A Star Is Born”), Christian Bale (“Vice), Willem Dafoe (“At Eternity’s Gate”), and Viggo Mortensen (“Green Book”).

Overlooked: Longshots here were Stephan James (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) and John David Washington (“The BlacKkKlansman”). James was barely in the conversation, while Washington’s performance seems to have been eclipsed by his “BlacKkKlansman” co-star Adam Driver, who nabbed a Best Supporting Actor nomination.


Photo by Carlos Somonte

Best Actress

Yalitza Aparicio is only the second Mexican actress to be nominated in the Best Actress category for “Roma.” In 2002, Salma Hayek was nominated for her performance in “Frida.” While school teacher-turned-actress Aparicio is a frontrunner, she is also in one of the year’s most competitive categories, which includes veterans Glenn Close (“The Wife”) and Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”), as well as popular Lady Gaga (“A Star is Born”), whose nomination marks one of the few instances that an open member of the LGBTQ community has been tapped in this category. Close has been nominated for the Oscar six times previously, but never won. The Academy may feel she is long overdue.

Overlooked: Nominations for “Fences” Oscar-winner Viola Davis (“Widows”) and/or newcomer Kiki Layne (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) would have strengthened the Best Actress category’s diversity quotient.

“Green Book”

Universal Pictures

Best Supporting Actor

The 2019 ceremony could see a repeat of the 2017 Oscars, when both supporting actor categories were won by black actors: Mahershala Ali for “Moonlight,” and Viola Davis for “Fences.” Ali returns to the table with “Green Book” in a performance that places him as the favorite in this category. It remains to be seen whether lingering controversy around the film will hurt its chances at a Best Picture win, but it probably won’t hurt Ali.

Overlooked: Missed opportunities include Russell Hornsby (“The Hate U Give”), whose affecting performance should have nabbed more attention, as well as Brian Tyree Henry’s mournful soliloquy in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Michael B. Jordan (“Black Panther”), and Daniel Kaluuya (“Widows”).

Regina King24th Annual Critics' Choice Awards, Press Room, Barker Hanger, Los Angeles, USA - 13 Jan 2019

Regina King at the 2019 Critics’ Choice Awards

Rob Latour/REX/Shutterstock

Best Supporting Actress

For her heartwarming performance as a determined mother in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Regina King received a first-ever Oscar nomination in her 30-year career. For a socially relevant film (made by a previous Oscar winner) that struggled to find its footing in other major categories, Emmy-winner King simply could not be ignored by the Academy. It’s likely hers to lose: Her main competition comes from Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz (both for “The Favourite”), who may cancel each other out. Although, the surprise nominee here — Mexican actress Marina de Tavira, for “Roma,” who was not on any expert predictions lists — could play spoiler.

Overlooked:  Longshots to have been nominated in this category were Lupita Nyong’o for “Black Panther” and Michelle Yeoh for “Crazy Rich Asians,” who both received an awards-season push.

Barry JenkinsScreenTimes 'If Beale Street Could Talk' with Barry Jenkins and Nicholas Britell, New York, USA - 28 Nov 2018

Barry Jenkins

Griffin Lipson/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

Best Adapted Screenplay

With two of the nominated films scripted or co-scripted by black writers, it also might mark “BlacKkKlansman’s” best chance at a win in a major category. It’s the fourth Oscar nomination for Spike Lee, who hasn’t won since his 1983 Student Academy Award — unless you count his Honorary Oscar in 2015. “BlacKkKlansman” was co-written by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott.

Also nominated is Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a script that’s mostly faithful to James Baldwin’s novel. It’s the writer-director’s second nomination in this category. Along with Tarell Alvin McCraney, he co-wrote the adaptation of McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” for the 2016 Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture winner “Moonlight.”

Overlooked: Left out of the mix were Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s “Black Panther” script, a film that’s also a Best Picture contender; Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” which he co-wrote with Gillian Flynn; and “Crazy Rich Asians,” co-written by Adele Lim, who’s of Malaysian-Chinese descent, and Pete Chiarelli.

Alfonso Cuaron at the IndieWire Honors 2018 at No Name on November 1, 2018 in Los Angeles.

Alfonso Cuaron at the IndieWire Honors 2018 at No Name on November 1, 2018 in Los Angeles.

Michael Buckner for Variety

Best Original Screenplay

In one of the year’s least-diverse major categories, Cuarón’s “Roma” was a no-brainer. It’s his second nomination for Best Original Screenplay, after “Y Tu Mamá También” in 2002. In the history of the Oscars, a Mexican writer has won this category once with Alejandro González Iñárritu in 2014 for “Birdman,” which he co-wrote with Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Nicolás Giacobone, and Armando Bo.

Overlooked: As one of the best-reviewed films of the year, Boots Riley’s purposeful, bitingly funny, and wholly original cult favorite “Sorry to Bother You” had the potential to play spoiler. He was squeezed out by “Green Book,” “Vice,” “The Favourite,” and “First Reformed.”

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”


Best Animated Feature

After winning both the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Movie Awards in this category, an Oscar nomination was all but a sure thing for Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr., and Rodney Rothman’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (the first Spider-Man feature film to be headlined by Afro-Latino Miles Morales).

Also a Golden Globe nominee, and topping several film critics associations lists is Mamoru Hosoda’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight selection “Mirai.”

“Hale County This Morning, This Evening”

Best Documentary Feature

This category contained a genuine diversity upset: While Morgan Neville’s Mr. Rogers biopic “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was heavily favored to see a nomination slot, it appears to have been upended by RaMell Ross’ topical “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” an inspired and intimate five-year portrait of the lives of two young African-American men from rural Hale County, Ala. Also in the lineup is rookie Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap,” a documentary search for correlations between the filmmaker’s skateboarder friends’ turbulent upbringings, and the complexities of masculinity.

Overlooked: The late Sydney Pollack’s glorious “Amazing Grace” (finally released after 40 years), and a pair of Netflix documentaries: the affectionate and comprehensive Quincy Jones film “Quincy,” co-directed by daughter Rashida Jones; and Singaporean filmmaker Sandi Tan’s compelling “Shirkers,” about a manhunt for a stolen film and a stolen piece of a life.

The 91st Annual Academy Awards will be handed out at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood. ABC will broadcast the Academy Awards ceremony live on Sunday, February 24.

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