Oscars nominees fail to reflect diversity, progress

Photo courtesy of DreamWorks

On Jan. 13, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed the field of nominees for February’s upcoming Oscars ceremony. As per usual, some of the nominees and omissions were surprising and even disappointing. Awards are unrepresentative in any industry, but the Academy Awards are even more-so. For example, cinema and art are so much more subjective than sports championships. So why is there so much annual hysteria over the Oscars?

One reason is that the Academy calls the public’s attention to a number of terrific works and achievements through their ceremony. Each year, scores of moviegoers rush to theaters to see the Best Picture nominees, and are introduced to new stories, perspectives and artistic expressions. While the actual nominees and winners often fail to coincide with the year’s finest, the reality is that the Oscars provide a living history of movies. All the attention a nomination brings has the potential to elevate or promote the careers of its participants.

This is what makes this year’s field so complicated. On one hand, most of the movies nominated are pretty good. On the other, the homogenous collection of nominees fails to reflect the excellent diversity that was available in theaters in 2019. This oversight is even more disappointing given the Academy’s recent efforts to diversify their membership. In a similar vein, many of the categories are filled with the usual suspects. 

“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” garnered recognition for director Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction”) and actors Brad Pitt (“Moneyball”) and Leonardo DiCaprio (“Titanic”). Likewise, director Martin Scorsese (“Taxi Driver”) earned a nomination for “The Irishman,” which brought acting nods for Joe Pesci (“Goodfellas”) and Al Pacino (“The Godfather”). The best actress fields are similarly populated by recurring Oscars participants Laura Dern (“Marriage Story”), Renee Zellweger (“Judy”) and Scarlett Johansson (“Jojo Rabbit” and “Marriage Story”), the last of whom actually received two acting nominations.

While each of these listed nominees put forward superb work, perhaps the most notable quality that they share is their whiteness. Of the 20 acting nominations, only one is filled by a nonwhite actor — Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”). In a similar vein, Bong Joon Ho (“Parasite”) is the only director of color to be honored this year. No women were nominated for Best Director, leaving Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”) as the only woman to receive that the Academy’s recognition for the entire decade in that category.

In addition to a general lack of equality, what makes this so alarming is the volume of contributions from diverse filmmakers and actors in 2019. Directors Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”), Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”), Jordan Peele (“Us”),  Olivia Wilde (“Booksmart”) and Lorene Scafaria (“Hustlers”) each created beautiful, critically acclaimed works of art. In front of the camera, “Waves,” “Parasite,” “The Farewell” and “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” featured exceptional performances from nonwhite actors; Lupita Nyong’o (“Us”) put forward one of the best acting jobs in a thriller in recent memory, yet received no nomination.

Despite their excellence, none of the aforementioned artists were nominated, with the exception of Greta Gerwig’s writing nomination. Many of the movies they represent were totally absent from the entire field of categories altogether. In twenty years, maybe one of them will win their overdue Oscar, like Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”) did last year; most may never have that opportunity, though.

Inequalities aside, some surprises and snubs exist. Adam Sandler, best known nowadays for his trashy Netflix comedies, was overlooked for his transcendent role in “Uncut Gems.” Conversely, “Joker” received an astounding eleven nominations, implying that the Academy’s response to the film is much warmer than that of the critical consensus. However, not all of the shocks were as disappointing.

Newcomer Florence Pugh (“Little Women”) garnered her first Oscar nomination after a stellar year of work. Antonio Banderas earned one for “Pain and Glory.” Cinematographer Jarin Blanschke squeaked in for his terrific work on “The Lighthouse.” Rian Johnson scored a screenplay recognition for “Knives Out.” Surprisingly, “Parasite” received six nods — a hefty amount for a foreign-language production.

With the field set, prognosticators are beginning to settle on favorites for various categories. Brad Pitt, Laura Dern, Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”) and Renee Zellweger are expected to win for their respective acting categories. Meanwhile, the Best Director and Best Picture competitions appear to be a two-horse race between Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” and Sam Mendes’ “1917.”

At the end of the day, the Oscars might be a meaningless awards show. That does not, however, make their continued whiteness any less frustrating. 2019 felt like a particularly ripe year to break the perpetuation of the ceremony’s inequality, yet the Academy’s selections failed to do so.

Still, this year’s nominees have merits of their own. While many of the nominations have certainly proven surprising or disappointing, the Academy still has the ability to right the ship in some regards. They can find ways to call attention to and celebrate the artists and craftsmen who made 2019 a truly special year for movies. 

The 92nd Academy Awards ceremony takes place on the evening of Feb. 9 on ABC.