The Oscars Are Still Playing the Same Race Card
Despite more racially diverse nominees than ever in 2021, the Academy Awards— and movies — remain largely segregated.
I know I should be applauding.
The ratio of White-to-BIPOC Academy Award nominees in the acting categories has never been tipped more in favor of diversity and inclusion than it is this year. When the ceremony takes place on April 25, the Oscars will be anything but #SoWhite.
Six of the 20 acting contenders are Black (including two Black Best Actress nominees for the first time since 1973), tying a record set in 2017 when Moonlight was named Best Picture. Last year, none of the Korean actors in the foreign-language Best Picture winner Parasite were nominated. This year, two Best Picture contenders (Minari and Sound of Metal) produced three acting nominees of Asian descent.
In other history-making news, two Best Director nominees are of Asian descent and two are women. The likely winner, China-born Chloé Zhao, who helmed Best Picture nominee Nomadland, is both. But is BIPOC talent truly overcoming in Hollywood? Three of the Best Picture nominees feature BIPOC performers in the central roles, yet I still feel like shrugging.
Despite obvious progress, closer inspection of the nominees reveals an ongoing pattern. When it comes to nominating non-White actors for Oscars, the Academy still tends to favor them in roles White actors couldn’t possibly play. And as usual, every Black acting nominee this year has been cited for a film with predominantly Black actors in the main roles and racism as a central theme.
Hollywood continues to have a too-limited scope when it comes to casting actors who aren’t White as leads in feature films. Nearly 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education integrated U.S. schools, American cinema still has segregation issues.
In fact, 2021 is somewhat of a regression from 2017, a year in which three Black-themed films made the Best Picture line-up, including Moonlight, a rare Oscar-anointed film with a predominantly Black cast that tells a non-race-specific story. There’s no such outlier in 2021, and of the four “Black” films that scored acting nominations, only one, Judas and the Black Messiah, was deemed worthy of a Best Picture nomination.
Meanwhile, Da 5 Bloods, director Spike Lee’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning 2018 effort BlacKkKlansman, was shut out in every category but Best Original Score, despite an armful of critics guild Best Actor prizes for Delroy Lindo and Supporting Actor citations for Chadwick Boseman (the presumed Best Actor frontrunner for his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). A drama revolving around the effects of the Vietnam War on a group of Black veterans, Da 5 Bloods was the only Black-led film in this year’s Oscar conversation in which Black lives aren’t largely defined by how White people treat them — and it barely made a blip with Oscar voters. You do the math.
I suppose we should be thankful none of the Black acting nominees were singled out for playing slaves, as was the case with last year’s lone Black acting nominee, Harriet’s Cynthia Erivo. There’s that — and this: Chloé Zhao is probably going to win Best Director for Nomadland, a non-Asian-themed film that could have been directed by Alexander Payne or Kenneth Lonergan. It also features probably the third-Whitest cast of all this year’s eight Best Picture nominees (after Mank and The Father).
‘Nomadland’ and the Supremacy of White People Problems
What’s the strongest liquid on earth (and in Hollywood)? White girl tears.
This Oscar season’s repeat White nominees like Frances McDormand (Nomadland) and Glenn Close (Hillbilly Elegy) have spent their careers getting nominated for playing characters who didn’t necessarily have to be White. I wish the Academy would nominate more BIPOC actors for the reverse (like Clemency’s Alfre Woodward, who was snubbed last year for Best Actress but nominated this year in the same BAFTA category). Sound of Metal’s Best Actor nominee Riz Ahmed, a Brit of Pakistani descent, is the only 2021 BIPOC nominee who played a character that wasn’t necessarily BIPOC on the page.
I don’t completely blame the Academy for the Oscars’ still-active racial biases. Hollywood continues to have a too-limited scope when it comes to casting actors who aren’t White as leads in feature films. Nearly 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education integrated U.S. schools, American cinema still has segregation issues.
Casting directors continue to overlook actors of color for non-race-specific movie roles, and the Academy regularly overlooks non-White actors unless they’re winning raves for movies with racial themes or for roles tailored to non-White performers. I’m convinced that’s why Jennifer Lopez was snubbed last year for her stunning Hustlers performance, one that an Amy Adams probably would have taken all the way to a win.
One might get the impression that the only reason this year’s six Black Oscar nominees were even cast in their films was because the demands of historical accuracy forced the hands of the producers. (Five of the six Black nominees are up for playing real-life figures.) If a major studio could have gotten away with Scarlett Johansson as Billie Holiday instead of Best Actress nominee Andra Day, it probably would have gone there. In some ways, 2021 is an even bigger step backwards from 2002, when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington both took lead acting Oscars for roles that, with some story tweaks, could have been played by Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks.
Washington, Will Smith, and Lopez aside, Hollywood seldom uses BIPOC actors in substantial roles outside of films requiring BIPOC actors. It’s why a supremely talented thespian like Judas and the Black Messiah’s Best Supporting Actor frontrunner Daniel Kaluuya is so tired of being asked about race. The actor broke through with 2017’s Get Out (scoring a Best Actor nomination in the process), and he’s versatile enough to take on any role Hollywood gives to Adam Driver, but he keeps getting cast in movies (Get Out, Black Panther, Queen & Slim, Judas) where race is the crux of his character arc.
‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ and the Resurgence of White Terrorism
This is why we’re still so angry.
I’m ready to see BIPOC actors shine (and score Oscar nominations) in integrated movies that tell universal stories and feature roles actors of any color can play. Blacks in real life deal with things other than racism. Asians fall in an out of love, and Latinos deal with the aftermath of sexual assault.
It’s not just on White directors; I’d like to see more directors of color expand their palettes to allow actors of color to headline movies with non-race-specific themes, as Barry Jenkins did in Moonlight and Steve McQueen in Widows, the 2018 heist thriller from the 12 Years a Slave director that scored zero nominations. Biopics may have built-in casting limitations, but why can’t Black, Asian, or Latino actors lead movies like The Father, Nomadland, Pieces of a Woman, and Promising Young Woman? Even adaptations based on books and plays can change the ethnicities of the characters without significantly changing the stories.
Despite the asterisk hovering over my Oscar enthusiasm, I do consider the diversity of this year’s nominees to be a positive step. On Oscar night, I’ll be cheering as loudly as everyone else if — when — Kaluuya and Boseman pick up their awards. I’ll be cheering even louder, if either Ahmed or Minari’s Steven Yeun upsets in Best Actor, or if Minari’s Best Supporting Actress nominee Youn Yuh-jung becomes the first actress of Asian descent to win an Oscar since Miyoshi Umeki took that category for her performance in 1957’s Sayonara.
On the morning after, I’ll keep hoping more directors will at last figure out they can cast BIPOC actors in non-BIPOC roles and the sky won’t fall down. Television has already been balancing that lofty level of diversity for a number of years now. Movies still feel like they’re in a holding pattern. Hopefully the days of #OscarsSoWhite are permanently behind us, but I’ll hold my applause and save it for the day when diversity in film — and, by extension, at the Oscars — is more than skin deep.