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People of colour and women make historic breakthroughs, but Oscar diversity remains elusive

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

The Academy Awards nominations for 2020 will be remembered as the year when diversity finally triumphed at the Oscars, with people of colour and women making historic breakthroughs.

This is no small feat, given the academy’s pale and male past history and the fact that the movies to be honoured at the April 25 awards ceremony were released in the midst of an ongoing pandemic that nobody will soon forget.

There’s no need for an #OscarsSoWhite or #TimesUp admonishment for this year’s slate of nominees, announced early Monday.

A record nine of the 20 acting nominations went to people of colour, who made particularly impressive gains in the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories, taking three of a potential five slots in each case. Best Actor includes a posthumous nomination for Chadwick Boseman in the blues music drama “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Boseman died of cancer last August.

Riz Ahmed becomes the first Muslim nominee for Best Actor, for his starring role as a deaf drummer in “Sound of Metal,” while Steven Yeun becomes the first Asian-American actor in the same category, for his work as a Korean immigrant farmer in “Minari.”

There was nothing short of a revolution in the Best Director race, which traditionally has been dominated by white males. It’s the first time in Oscar’s 93 years that white men haven’t ruled the roost.

Two women are competing for Best Director for the first time: China’s Chloé Zhao for “Nomadland” and Britain’s Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman,” both for films about women striking back against adversity.

Zhao also has the distinction of being the first woman of colour to be nominated for Best Director, a category that has previously seen just five female nominees (with just one winner, Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker”).

This year’s three male Best Director contenders include one huge surprise: Denmark’s Thomas Vinterberg grabbed a nom for “Another Round,” an alcohol-fuelled tale of male angst that likely took the spot from Hollywood heavyweight Aaron Sorkin, whose Yippie history drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7” still managed six nominations, Best Picture among them.

American-Korean filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung also made the Best Director grade for his immigrant drama “Minari,” leaving three-time nominee David Fincher as the sole repeat contender in this category for “Mank,” his backstory on the writing of “Citizen Kane.”

Fincher has every reason to feel proud of himself, because “Mank” also leads this year’s Oscar parade with 10 nominations, Best Picture included. Six films are tied for second place, with six nods apiece including Best Picture: “Nomadland,” “Minari,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Sound of Metal” and “The Father.” Just behind is “Promising Young Woman” with five nominations, which completes the eight Best Picture nominees. (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” also has five nods, but not Best Picture.)

Fincher’s wide lead is impressive, but he might be inclined to look over his shoulder since “Mank” has not done well on the awards circuit to date, despite winning many nominations on the road to the Oscars. “Mank” also led the nominations at the recent Golden Globes, where it went 0-6 in wins, and at the Critics Choice Awards, where it went 1-12, taking gold just for Best Production Design.

“Mank” could easily be blanked at the Oscars, making it the most losing film at the Oscars since 1985, when “The Color Purple” went home winless despite 11 nominations.

Fennell, on the other hand, has every reason for optimism. The five Oscar noms for “Promising Young Woman” complete more than a year of acclaim for the writer/director, who also has a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Fennell, who is also an actress, is known to viewers of Netflix’s “The Crown” for playing Camilla Parker Bowles, the secret lover and later wife of Prince Charles.

This will be the last year that the Best Picture category fluctuates between a potential five and 10 nominees, due to complicated Oscar math. The academy has stated that starting next year, there will be a guaranteed 10 Best Picture nominations.

Had this revised Best Picture rule been in effect this year, it seems likely George C. Wolfe’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (five nominations) and Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” (three nominations) would have made the cut.

Both were popular with critics and audiences along the Oscars trail. These two Best Picture no-shows suggest diversity still has a ways to go at the Oscars.

But the Best Picture nomination for Shaka King’s Black Panthers drama “Judas and the Black Messiah” was something of a surprise, since it debuted Feb. 1 at the Sundance Film Festival and was a very late addition to the Oscars race.

The academy has made strides in recent years to improve its diversity and gender ratios, and has expanded its reach to include thousands of new members from around the world.

There will be 9,300 voters for this year’s Oscars, of which 32 per cent will be women (up from 25 per cent in 2015) and 16 per cent will be persons of colour (up from eight per cent in 2015).

(This story was previously published in the Toronto Star.)



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