There’s Increased Diversity in the Major Oscar Noms, but Best Actress Remains a Problem

The last time an actress of color won the Best Actress Oscar was Halle Berry for "Monster's Ball" 20 years ago.
Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene Price in "King Richard"
Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene Price in "King Richard"
Warner Bros.

“Diversity sells” is the clarion call of the industry, yet progress with the Academy Awards has been incremental, as seen in today’s nominations for the 94th Oscars. Social media movements like #OscarsSoWhite have compelled the Academy to react. And, to their credit, they have, implementing broad changes designed to increasingly diversify its membership. But no matter how diverse, voters can’t vote for films and performances that aren’t always there. That’s up to the studios.

Diversity contenders like “King Richard,” “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” and “West Side Story,” don’t need Academy Awards to validate them, but the Academy may need these films to draw viewers. Ratings for the Oscar telecast reached an all-time low in 2021, but it was a strange year. And in a year as wacky as the last one was, surprises shouldn’t surprise.

Let’s take a look at the major categories.

The Tragedy of Macbeth
“The Tragedy of Macbeth”Apple/A24

Best Picture

Last year “Nomadland,” directed and co-produced by Chloé Zhao, walked away with the Oscar.

The year before, one of the nine films nominated — Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” — qualified. It also won the Oscar in the category.

That means for two years in a row, the Best Picture winner was a film directed by a filmmaker of color.

This year there are three nominated: Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard,” Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley,” and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car.”

And even though it looks like the frontrunner is “The Power of the Dog,” they all could very well win.

Will Smith in "King Richard"
“King Richard”Anne Marie Fox

Best Director

Oscar voters seem to have begun to recognize the strength in the work of directors of color. In the last fours years, a filmmaker of color won the Oscar in this category all four times: Chloé Zhao for “Nomadland” (2021), Bong Joon Ho for “Parasite” (2020), Alfonso Cuarón for “Roma” (2019), and Guillermo del Toro for “The Shape of Water” (2018). This year, Ryusuke Hamaguchi is the only POC nominated in Best Director, for “Drive My Car.”

A surprising snub is Reinaldo Marcus Green, especially given “King Richard’s” other nominations (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Picture).

Also snubbed is Chilean Pablo Larrain (“Spencer”).

Best Actress

This still continues to be one of the least diverse categories historically, with just seven actresses of color nominated in the last decade — a drought that speaks to what has been a lack of lead roles for women of color. A woman of color has not won this category since Halle Berry won for “Monster’s Ball” 20 years ago. A surprise snub this year is Jennifer Hudson (“Respect”). She’s been to the big dance before, winning Supporting Actress for “Dreamgirls,” but she did face tough competition from Kristen Stewart (“Spencer”), Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers”), Olivia Colman (“The Lost Daughter”), Nicole Kidman (“Being the Ricardos”), and Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”).

"West Side Story"
“West Side Story”Disney

Best Actor

No surprise that Will Smith and Denzel Washington are nominees. It’s a year with few BIPOC contenders in major categories, and one of them just might walk away with a win in this category. My money is on Smith who stars in one of the year’s feel-good, mainstream movies about two of the most celebrated athletes of this century. Washington has won one, and Smith has seemingly been campaigning for a trophy for years, so if one was to win, I’d give it to him.

Best Supporting Actress

The supporting categories have always been where performers of color have historically been nominated and won. Actresses of color have won the Oscar six of the last 11 years: Mo’Nique, Octavia Spencer, Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davis, Regina King, and Youn Yuh-Jung. And this year is no different with Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”) and Aunjanue Ellis (“King Richard”) both getting nominations

Ruth Negga (“Passing”) seemed like a lock, but she didn’t make the cut.

Ellis may have an edge for many of the same reasons as Will Smith. Additionally, there may be a desire to correct the narrative: that Oracene Price clearly had an impact on who the Williams sisters would become is a story that’s been supplanted by that of Richard Williams.

"A Hero"
“A Hero”Amazon Studios

Best Supporting Actor

Corey Hawkins (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”), David Alvarez (“West Side Story”), and Jeffrey Wright (“The French Dispatch”) all seemed like contenders in a congested field, but nada.

Best Adapted Screenplay

This is also historically one of the least diverse categories. And this year is the same. However, when BIPOC writers are nominated, their chances of winning are high. To wit, in the last decade, writers of color have been nominated 10 times, and won five: “Precious” (Geoffrey Fletcher), “12 Years a Slave” (John Ridley), “Moonlight” (Barry Jenkins), “BlacKkKlansman” (Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee, co-written with Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz), and “Jojo Rabbit” (Taika Waititi).

Last year Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”), Kemp Powers (“One Night in Miami…”), and Ramin Bahrani (“The White Tiger”) were nominated. None of them went home with the trophy, which was awarded to “The Father” scribes Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller.

This year Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe are co-nominated for “Drive My Car,” their adaptation based on Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same name. History suggests they are likely faves.

Snubbed: Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation (with Kim Morgan) of William Lindsay Gresham’s “Nightmare Alley.”

Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro©IFC Midnight/courtesy Everett Collection

Best Original Screenplay

Another category that’s historically known for its lack of diversity, two writers of color were nominated last year: Shaka King (“Judas and the Black Messiah,” co-written with Will Berson) and Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”). The Oscar eventually went to the only woman who was nominated: Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman.”

The last win by a writer of color was the year prior when Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin-won took home the Oscar for “Parasite.”

In the last 10 years, writers of color have won three times: Bong and Han for “Parasite,” Jordan Peele for “Get Out,” and “Birdman,” which was co-written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Nicolás Giacobone.

This year, all eyes will be on Zach Baylin whose “King Richard” is getting lots of attention.

The 94th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 27, 2022, in Hollywood and will be televised live on ABC and in more than 200 territories worldwide.

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