It’s possible that someday Hollywood’s diversity problem will no longer exist. The “diversity sells” narrative is a tired song that’s been sung repeatedly over the last decade, yet progress has been inconsistent at best. Since 2015, social media movements like #OscarsSoWhite have forced the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to respond, introducing sweeping changes designed to significantly diversify its membership and governing bodies.
Yet, Hollywood’s pace of change is slow. The diversity across major categories among this year’s awards contenders, compared to previous seasons, is emblematic. Even the voters in the International Film category, where diversity might seem most intrinsic, came up short this year: despite as many as 10 legitimate contenders from the continent this year, yet again, Africa was shut out of the shortlist of 15.
To be sure, in the throes of a pandemic, uncertainty continues to weigh on industry decision-makers. Nonetheless, as another year in film comes to a close, bookended by the traditional, albeit less emphatic awards season, the show must go on.
One thing is certain: The Academy will want a diverse field of nominees, given that studies have found a direct correlation between Oscar nominee diversity in major categories and viewership. While 2021 contenders like “King Richard,” “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” “and “West Side Story,” don’t necessarily need Oscars to validate them, the Oscars may need these films in order to survive. Ratings for the 2020 Oscar telecast reached all-time lows, only to be undercut by the ceremony of 2021, which sank even lower. But it was a strange year.
Certainly, there’s nowhere to go but up. The Academy is doing its part, but an increasingly diverse Academy membership is still at the mercy of its voting choices. That responsibility falls on executives with greenlight power. A more inclusive movie pipeline (one that resembles the American audience that pays to see these films), especially when it comes to Oscar-caliber material, is crucial.
Sadly, 2021’s list of likely contenders betrays an sense of urgency through action. Here’s a preview of major categories.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth”
History: Last year’s Best Picture nominees were relatively diverse, compared to previous years, with five of the eight titles meeting the requirement in major categories in front of and/or behind the camera: “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Minari,” “Nomadland,” “Sound of Metal,” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
Directed and co-produced by Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland” walked away with the Oscar.
In contrast, the year before just one of the nine films nominated — Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” — qualified. It also won the Oscar in the category.
For two years in a row, the Best Picture winner was a film directed by a filmmaker of color. And of the last 10 winners, six were directed by filmmakers of color: “12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” “Moonlight,” “The Shape of Water,” “Parasite,” and “Nomadland.”
The experts say: As many as five top contenders check the diversity box this year, including Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard,” Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley,” Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” Joel Cohen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Tick, tick… Boom!”
And they all could very well make the final cut, now that the Best Picture category nominee count will be a guaranteed 10.
The frontrunners currently are “Belfast” and “The Power of the Dog.” But in a year as wacky as this one, a surprise winner will not be a surprise.
Will Smith in “King Richard”
Anne Marie Fox
History: For the last fours years, a filmmaker of color won the Oscar in this category: 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). Lee Isaac Chung was nominated along with Zhao for “Minari”; and Spike Lee was nominated the same year as Cuaron, for “BlacKkKlansman.”
The experts say: A Green nomination for “King Richard” would be a coup for a young filmmaker who isn’t a household name and whose resume is short compared to his more seasoned rivals: Guillermo del Toro (“Nightmare Alley”), Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”), Steven Spielberg (“West Side Story”), Paul Thomas Anderson (“Licorice Pizza”), Kenneth Branagh (“Belfast”), and Denis Villeneuve (“Dune”).
Chilean Pablo Larrain (“Spencer”) and Spain’s Pedro Almodovar (“Parallel Mothers”) could wind up on the outside looking in.
History: This 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 in film, especially when it comes to Oscar-caliber work: Andra Day, Cynthia Erivo, Yalitza Aparicio, Ruth Negga, Quvenzhané Wallis, Viola Davis, and Gabourey Sidibe. Davis (nominated twice in this category) and Day were both nominees of color last year, for their performances in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”
The experts say: LatinX Rachel Zegler (“West Side Story”) and Jennifer Hudson (“Respect”) are both long-shot contenders this year. Zegler is new, but Hudson has been to the big dance before, winning Supporting Actress for “Dreamgirls.” They face tough competition from Kristen Stewart (“Spencer”), Olivia Colman (“The Lost Daughter”), Nicole Kidman (“Being the Ricardos”), Lady Gaga (“House of Gucci”), and Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”).
Halle Berry in her directorial debut in “Bruised” is a long shot. Despite a gritty, gutsy performance, critics were mixed on it.
While Will Smith (“King Richard”) and Denzel Washington (“The Tragedy of MacBeth”) will win Best Actor, the Actress Oscar will likely go to a white actress. Two performers of color winning top acting trophies in the same year has happened just once in the history of the Oscars: when Washington and Halle Berry both won in 2002, for “Training Day” and “Monster’s Ball,” respectively. It was also the last time an actress of color won Best Actress.
“West Side Story”
History: Also, historically not a diverse category, the absence of nominees of color contending for the Best Actor Oscar speaks to a lack of lead roles for men of color in film, especially when it comes to Oscar-caliber work. Last year’s list of nominees was one its most diverse, with Chadwick Boseman (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), Steven Yeun (“Minari”), and Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”), complementing Gary Oldman (“Mank”) and Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”). Hopkins took home the trophy, his second; the first being “The Silence of the Lambs” in 1992.
The experts say: It seems inevitable that Smith will win for a number of reasons. It’s a year with few BIPOC contenders in major categories; he appears in one of the year’s feel-good, mainstream movies; it’s about the real-life kingmaker partly responsible for the exemplary success of two of the world’s most famous athletes who’ve generated more conversation than any other athlete of their generation; Smith has seemingly been campaigning for a trophy for years.
Washington will almost surely be nominated for “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
Other names in the conversation include a mix of old and new faces: Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Power of the Dog”), Leonardo DiCaprio (“Don’t Look Up”), Peter Dinklage (“Cyrano”), Andrew Garfield (“tick, tick… Boom!”), Simon Rex (“Red Rocket”), and Bradley Cooper (“Nightmare Alley”).
Best Supporting Actress
History: The supporting categories are where performers of color have historically shined. 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 (“Minari”), who won the award at the 93rd Academy Awards, as the only nominee of color.
The experts say: This year, at least one of these four will be nominated: Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”), Aunjanue Ellis (“King Richard”), Ruth Negga (“Passing”), and Rita Moreno (“West Side Story”) are all in the mix. Although it’s in a crowded field that also includes Kirsten Dunst (“The Power of the Dog”), Caitriona Balfe (“Belfast”), Ann Dowd (“Mass”), Cate Blanchett (“Nightmare Alley”), Marlee Matlin (“CODA”), Jessie Buckley (“The Lost Daughter”), and Judi Dench (“Belfast”).
“King Richard” star Ellis may have an edge for many of the same reasons as Smith. Additionally, the Oracene Price story as a key influence on the phenomenon that would become the Williams sisters is one that has been effectively muted by intense media concentration on Richard Williams. Sadly, the film does the same, and Ellis isn’t given a lot to do. But she makes the most of it.
Don’t count out DeBose and Negga. Both performances deliver, and it won’t be Negga’s first nomination. She was recognized in the Best Actress category for her role as Mildred Loving in the 2016 film “Loving.”
Best Supporting Actor
History: Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) won a diverse category at the 93rd Academy Awards, which also included Sacha Baron Cohen in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Leslie Odom, Jr. in “One Night in Miami,” Paul Raci in “Sound of Metal,” and Lakeith Stanfield in “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
Mahershala Ali won the category twice over the last five years (“Moonlight” and “Green Book”), which means that, with wins by Ali and Kaluuya combined, the Best Supporting Actor Oscar has been awarded to actors of color two-thirds of the time over that period — Black actors primarily. Can the streak continue?
The experts say: Corey Hawkins (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”), David Alvarez (“West Side Story”), and Jeffrey Wright (“The French Dispatch”) are in a congested field of contenders that also includes Jared Leto (“House of Gucci”), Kodi Smit-McPhee (“The Power of the Dog”), Ciaran Hinds (“Belfast”), Bradley Cooper (“Licorice Pizza”), Jesse Plemons (“The Power of the Dog”), Richard Jenkins (“The Humans”), J.K. Simmons (“Being the Ricardos”), Jon Bernthal (“King Richard”), Jason Isaacs (“Mass”), Troy Kotsur (“CODA”), and Jamie Dornan (“Belfast”).
Smit-McPhee is the frontrunner, with Leto and Hinds behind him. But it does seem to be an open field and one of those categories that could surprise in one or two slots. Of the three actors who check the diversity box, Hawkins may have the edge.
Best Adapted Screenplay
History: This is historically one of the least diverse categories. But when writers of color do pick up nominations, they stand a decent chance of winning. 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 alone saw three nominees of color in the category: Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”), Kemp Powers (“One Night in Miami…”), and “The White Tiger” (Ramin Bahrani). None of them went home with the trophy, which was awarded to “The Father” scribes Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller.
The experts say: Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation (with Kim Morgan) of William Lindsay Gresham’s “Nightmare Alley,” is the only real POC contender here. He’s up against “The Power of the Dog” (Jane Campion), “The Lost Daughter” (Maggie Gyllenhaal), “West Side Story” (Tony Kushner), and “Dune” (Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, and Eric Roth). A long shot might be critics’ fave Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Murakami adaptation “Drive My Car.”
“Nightmare Alley” should pick up a nomination, but Campion is a strong favorite to win the category for “The Power of the Dog.”
Guillermo del Toro
©IFC Midnight/courtesy Everett Collection
Best Original Screenplay
History: Last year saw two writers of color nominated: 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 nominee in the group: auteur 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.” And before that, at the 2018 ceremony, “Get Out” writer-director Jordan Peele became the first African American to win the category.
In the last decade, writers of color have won three times: Bong and Han for “Parasite,” Peele for “Get Out,” and “Birdman,” which was co-written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Nicolás Giacobone.
The experts say: Another historically homogeneous category, this year has no qualifying diversity contenders. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” and Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” are the two frontrunners.
Longshots: “A Hero” by Asghar Farhadi, Pedro Almodovar (“Parallel Mothers”), and “The Harder They Fall” by Jeymes Samuel and Boaz Yakin.
Best Music (Original Score)
History: This has always been one of the least diverse categories, dominated by a handful of names, all of them white and male. In the current century, veterans like John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Thomas Newman, Philip Glass, James Newton Howard, Alberto Iglesias, and Alexandre Desplat, along with recent additions (who are poised to dominate the category in the future) Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Nicholas Britell, and Jonny Greenwood, have maintained a firm grip on nominations in the category. Along with newcomer Jon Baptiste, bandleader and musical director on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” Reznor and Ross picked up the Oscar for “Soul” at the 93rd Academy Awards.
The experts say: Scores for “The Harder They Fall” (The Bullitts), “Encanto” (Germaine Franco), and “King Richard” (Kris Bowers), which were all likely contenders, have been shortlisted. But they have plenty of competition, most of them among the aforementioned category regulars, two with multiple scores in the fight: Glass (“Candyman”), Nicholas Britell (“Don’t Look Up”), Zimmer (“Dune” and “No Time to Die”), Desplat (“The French Dispatch”), Iglesias (“Parallel Mothers”), Greenwood (“The Power of the Dog” and “Spencer”).
Bowers, at a hair over 30 years old, is by far the youngest in the group, but he’s certainly been on the rise since his Primetime Emmy nomination for “When They See Us” in 2019. For films released this year which are contenders in this category and/or others, Bowers composed music for “Respect” and “King Richard.” Of the three scores that meet diversity requirements, his work on “King Richard” may earn him a nomination, although the odds are slim that he’ll knock off any of the strong favorites.
Best Music (Original Song)
History: Historically a mixed bag, last year, H.E.R., D’Mile, and Tiara Thomas won the category for “Fight for You” from the “Judas and the Black Messiah” soundtrack. If there’s been any dominance, Diane Warren has been nominated six times in the last decade, for a total of 12 nominations in her career, but not a single win; at least not yet. She might get another shot this year with “Somehow You Do” from “Four Good Days.”
The experts say: This category could very well end up with the year’s most diverse list of nominees. Beyoncé and Jay-Z are both in contention with “Be Alive” from “King Richard,” and “Guns Go Bang” from “The Harder They Fall” respectively. If both are nominated, it could mark a first-time couple’s showdown in Oscar history. Meanwhile, Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi), is in the conversation with two songs: “Guns Go Bang” (which he co-wrote with the man they call Hov), and “Just Look Up” from “Don’t Look Up” (with Ariana Grande).
Additionally, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a contender with “Dos Oruguitas” from Disney’s “Encanto.” Last year’s winner, H.E.R., could repeat with “Automatic Woman” from “Bruised,” which she co-wrote with Van Hunt and Starrah. Amandla Stenberg and SZA are both responsible for two versions of the same song from the “Dear Evan Hansen” soundtrack: “The Anonymous Ones.” The version written especially for the film, was penned by Stenberg (who also performs it in the film in the role of Alana Beck), Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul. An alternate version comes from SZA. Both are featured on the film’s soundtrack. And finally, Jennifer Hudson sings “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home)” from “Respect,” which may represent the film’s strongest argument for a nomination, given that its music is ultimately what propels it.
Nominations for the 94th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, February 8, 2022. 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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