This year’s Academy Award ceremony will certainly look a lot different than last year’s.
Last year, for the second year in a row, the entire slate of nominees in the four acting categories were white. This year, in a historic first, there are six African-American actors nominated in the four acting categories. Denzel Washington is nominated in the lead actor category for his grand-slam performance in August Wilson’s “Fences.” Ruth Negga is nominated in the lead actress category for her finely nuanced portrayal of reluctant civil rights pioneer Mildred Loving in “Loving.”
Mahershala Ali is nominated in the supporting actor category for his magnificent performance in “Moonlight” as the drug lord who takes the young Chiron under his wing even as he sells crack to Chiron’s mother Paula. Three African-American actresses dominate the supporting actress category: Viola Davis in “Fences,” Naomie Harris as Chiron’s mother in “Moonlight” and Octavia Spencer in the breakout hit and box office champ of the holiday season, “Hidden Figures.”
In addition, Dev Patel, an English actor of Indian descent, is nominated for his performance in “Lion,” a moving movie about an Indian boy who is adopted by an Australian couple after he is separated from his birth family.
Three of those movies also got best picture noms: “Fences,” “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight.” This is the first time Hollywood has shown such a powerful spotlight on black gay life.
Three of the nominees for documentary feature also focus on the African American experience. The penetrating “13th” by Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) examines the appalling racial disparities in the American judicial system. “O.J.: Made in America” by Ezra Edelman is a 10-hour exploration of the life of celebrity athlete O.J. Simpson. “I Am Not Your Negro,” directed by Raoul Peck, is a searing exploration of race in America through the writings of openly gay black author James Baldwin.
Barry Jenkins, a straight ally, is the first black writer-director to be nominated for best picture, best director and best screenplay for his groundbreaking work on “Moonlight.” Openly gay playwright Terell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the unproduced play the movie is based on, was also nominated by the Academy for his work on the “Moonlight” screenplay.
There are also some other nods to diversity among the Oscar nominees. Maren Ade, who helmed the German comedy “Toni Erdmann,” is the only woman to be recognized for her work as director of a feature film. Hispanic artist and “Hamilton” superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda is nominated for his work on “Moana,” the animated movie about a Polynesian girl who saves her island. (If Miranda wins, he will become the 13th person to score the coveted EGOT, the grand slam of American entertainment prizes: an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.)
Miranda will be competing against openly gay musician Benj Pasek, part of the songwriting team for “La La Land.”
So, while the Academy has made some serious strides in addressing the #OscarSoWhite hashtag, it still has a long way to go in addressing the hashtags #OscarSoMale and #OscarSoStraight and in the inclusion of Hispanic and Asian-American artists.
The big showdown this Sunday will be between “Moonlight” (with eight nominations) and “La La Land” (with 14 nominations, joining “Titanic” and “All About Eve” in a tie for movies with the most Oscar nods). “La La Land” swept the Golden Globes, but it may not do as well at the Oscars where it will not be competing in a separate “Musical or Comedy” category.
The most exciting races are among the crowded fields for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Perennial nominee Meryl Streep snuck into the Best Actress category for “Florence Foster Jenkins” (presumably on the strength of her Golden Globes acceptance speech), but Taraji P. Henson, Amy Adams and Annette Bening were shut out. I’m rooting for Isabelle Huppert in “Elle,” but the award will probably go to Natalie Portman’s dazzling performance in “Jackie.” Viola Davis will probably win her first Oscar for her heartbreaking work in “Fences,” but any of the other nominees are well-deserving.
Unless there’s a major upset, Mahershala Ali will win for Best Supporting Actor. The Best Actor race is between Denzel Washington and Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”). I’m rooting for Washington.
As for Best Picture statue, front runners “La La Land” and “Moonlight” will split the vote and “Hidden Figures” will win some well-deserved Oscar gold.