It’s hard to ignore how this year’s list of Academy Award nominees is #OscarsNotSoWhite after controversy erupted several years ago about the fact that little to no actors of any color were nominated for the prestigious award.
Now, at the 89th annual Academy Awards ceremony, which airs Sunday, February 26, at 8:30 pm EST on ABC, a record-tying seven actors of color are nominated in lead and supporting categories.
Denzel Washington is poised to win an historic third Oscar as Best Actor for his role as Troy Maxson in Fences. Washington, directed and produced the film, would be just the sixth actor to achieve the honor, joining acting peers Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis. Legendary actress Katharine Hepburn leads all with four Oscars.
Three of the five actresses nominated for the Best Supporting Actress are Black. Viola Davis, who plays Rose Maxson in Fences, is on pace to win her first Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, a category that fellow nominee Octavia Spencer of Hidden Fences has won, and for which British actress Naomie Harris has received her first-ever nomination for Moonlight.
Ruth Negga from Loving, about the couple who challenged this country’s anti-miscegenation laws and won for interracial couples everywhere, is the sole Black Best Actress nominee. On top of that, Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali, who is the only Black Best Supporting Actor nominee, is a heavy favorite to win.
The acting nominations are more plentiful than in years past because of three films, Fences, Moonlight and Hidden Figures, which are all vying for Best Picture.
While the Academy Awards would love to take credit for the panoply of diversity among this year’s nominees, organization president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is Black, tells USA Today that much of it has to do with movie distribution patterns over which the organization has no control.
“It just so happened that there were films this year with diverse talent in front of and behind the camera. There was much more inclusion. But the important issue still remains the same, the issue of inclusion in Hollywood with regard to employment,” she tells the news outlet.
Still, brighter spots can also be found in more than the acting categories.
Moonlight, a coming of age film that grapples with life and sexuality in Miami’s tough Liberty City neighborhood during the crack era, has earned its director Barry Jenkins, himself a Liberty City native, a Best Director nomination. He and celebrated playwright and fellow Liberty City native Tarell Alvin McCraney share a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay based on a story by McCraney.
And the great playwright August Wilson, to whom McCraney was once an assistant, is nominated posthumously for Best Adapted Screenplay. Hollywood first came calling for the Broadway hit, Fences, back in the 1980s so Wilson was able to craft a script before his death in 2005. Wilson’s insistence on a Black director for the big screen version of his Pulitzer-winning play grappling with the harsh reality of a Black man in Jim Crow America was very much responsible for the long delay. With Washington, Fences got an actor, director, and producer who finally got it made. Macro, a company founded by Charles D. King, the former film/TV agent who became the first Black managing partner at Hollywood powerhouse William Morris Endeavor, is a key financier of Fences as well as executive producer.
But Fences isn’t the only Best Picture nominee with significant Black players. Pharrell Williams is a producer on Hidden Figures, the feel-good drama about the unsung contributions Black women made to the space program during Jim Crow. Margot Lee Shetterly, who began chronicling this history in the book that was optioned to make Hidden Figures, is an executive producer.
Despite a lack of Black actors in key roles, Manchester by the Sea, a major Oscar contender, is produced by Kimberly Steward. She is “only the second Black female producer—after Oprah Winfrey—ever nominated for a best-picture Oscar.”
Technical awards are promising as well. Acclaimed cinematographer Bradford Young, who has won major awards at Sundance for such films as Mother of George and Pariah, has finally received his first Oscar nomination for Arrival, which is also a first for any Black cinematographer. Young, a Howard University grad, is a noted collaborator of Ava DuVernay’s having worked on Selma and Middle of Nowhere with her. Joi McMillon, co-editor of Moonlight, is the first Black woman ever nominated in the Best Film Editing category. McMillon cut her teeth in reality television before making the hard transition into film.
Perhaps most surprising is the race for Best Documentary Feature where a whopping four of the five nominees are Black filmmakers. They are: DuVernay’s 13th about the 13th Amendment and mass incarceration; O.J.: Made in America by Ezra Edelman, a compelling nearly 8-hour-long film, that looks at the life of O.J. Simpson through the prism of race; Raoul Peck’s riveting James Baldwin film challenging this nation’s systemic racism; and Life, Animated, a film about how Disney movies helped parents reach their autistic son, Roger Ross Williams, who is the first Black winner in Documentary Shorts with 2010’s Music by Prudence. While most consider it a toss-up between O.J. and 13th, history will surely be made if one of these four films win an Academy Award.
But, even as the 89th Annual Academy Awards promises to be the most diverse in its storied history, Darnell Hunt, who helms the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, which releases an annual Hollywood diversity report, warns that “Just because [Black filmmakers and actors] were finally recognized by the Academy doesn’t mean that Hollywood as an industry is making more [diverse] films.”
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.