The Oscar nominations have arrived. But did they mirror a changing tide in Hollywood toward more inclusion?
Like last year, yes and no. The trends left industry watchers skeptical, if hopeful.
“It wasn’t as momentous as what we saw last year, which was really a breakthrough in terms of diversity at the Oscars, but it was definitely noteworthy,” says Darnell Hunt, Dean of Social Sciences at UCLA and author of the Hollywood Diversity Report.
Four Black actors earned acting nominations this year – Will Smith (“King Richard”) and Denzel Washington (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”) for best actor, and Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”) and Aunjanue Ellis (“King Richard” ) for best supporting actress. But that’s down from a historic nine people of color in 2021. All nominees for best actress and best supporting actor are white.
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With an eye on representation, two queer women received acting nominations this year, both rocking the race with their first nominations: DeBose, and Kristen Stewart for best lead actress in “Spencer.” Plus, documentary “Flee,” which features a queer refugee story, earned three nominations.
Troy Kotsur’s supporting actor nomination for “CODA” signals a win for representation for deaf communities (CODA also scored a best picture nomination).
Last year marked the first time more than one woman was nominated for best director. This year Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”) is the sole female filmmaker nominated, but her nod marks the first time a woman has earned multiple directing nominations after her 1994 directing nomination for “The Piano.” Campion also earned nominations for producing and adapted screenplay.
Experts appreciate the wins but say motion picture academy voters once again seem to have missed the mark, especially after the previous year’s gains.
“We don’t see any movement this year,” says employment lawyer and mediator Angela Reddock-Wright. “We don’t see them advancing the ball in terms of ensuring that people of color and women are, at least at the director level, are at the center of opportunity.”
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Though films like “Encanto” and “West Side Story” highlighted Latino communities, and Japanese film “Drive My Car” nabbing four nods, including best picture and best director, Black-led films like “The Harder They Fall” failed to enter the gilded ceremony. Out of 10 best picture nominees, “King Richard” was the only one with a predominantly Black cast; “Drive My Car” snagged a spot on the list with a Japanese cast.
Since the #OscarsSoWhite fiasco of 2015 and subsequent years of nominations that brought outrage, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has worked to diversify its membership to include more women and people of color.
The academy remains overwhelmingly white and male. As of 2021, 33% of active academy members were women (up from 25% in 2015) and 19% were from underrepresented racial or ethnic communities (up from 10% in 2015).
The Oscars has since further diversified its new membership classes: Its 2021 membership class is 46% women (up from 45% in 2020), and 39% of the class is from underrepresented ethnic/racial communities (up from 36% in 2020).
The changes represent a shift in the entertainment industry. But is it enough of a shift?
“They still have a ways to go, because people of color are about 42.7% of our population,” Hunt says. “But I think things are moving in the right direction.”
UCLA’s annual Hollywood Diversity Report last year revealed major strides in terms of diversity and inclusion for women and people of color in the entertainment industry, but as the coronavirus pandemic changes the landscape, it remains to be seen whether such changes will last.
Entertainment lawyer Darrell Miller says that in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in 2020, more sensitivity surrounded diversity issues. Such sensitivity could be false.
Merely reactionary change “was always the fear,” he says. “I think (the academy) might be slowing down and need to be reinvigorated through more stronger commitments over time.”
Hunt cautions we need to consider a number of years of representation at the Oscars in a row to get a better sense of trends.
Continuing to add more diversity to the academy membership will lead to voters having different opinions about what qualifies as an Oscar-worthy movie and performance, Reddock-Wright says. “But until some of those foundational changes start to take place, we’re likely to see similar results from year to year.”
Either way, the academy puts in a (supposed) safeguard to ensure diversity in its future best picture winners. The organization announced in September 2020 that it would implement new diversity and inclusion standards for the best picture race in 2024.
A USA TODAY analysis of last year’s best picture nominees found it’s not that difficult to pull off adhering to the academy’s upcoming standards, even if a film doesn’t have a diverse cast. All 2021 best picture nominees would have met the new standards.