A More Diverse Oscars, 2021

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have taken a long time to bring some diversity to their membership and to their award nominations. Last year, the Academy instituted a new Diversity and Inclusion Standard. This year, with a playing field leveled by the inclusion of films that streamed, instead of only including films that were in theatrical release, there is notable change. Indeed, some of the most personal stories might have benefited from the intimacy of the home screen. And while most of the films are easily accessible to watch from home, it’s a patchwork of subscription streaming services and VOD, so this handy guide on Vulture will help.

This year’s Oscar Nominees celebrate movies that are introspective, that bring us inside other cultures, and that celebrate Black heroes and the uphill battles women face in this world. The US has had a year of marches, riots and a rude awakening to systemic racism and white supremacy and the world has suffered unimaginable losses due to the COVID pandemic. Yet the Academy didn’t nominate “fluff” or big budget escapism. There was more room made at the table for diverse voices and for the first time, we have two women nominated in the directing category, Emerald Ferrell and Chloé Zhao.

Nine actors of color earned Academy Award nominations, setting an Oscar record for diversity in those categories. “Minari” star Steven Yeun became the first Asian American ever nominated for best actor; in the same category, “Sound of Metal” star Riz Ahmed became the first person of Pakistani descent ever nominated for any acting Oscar. And Yeun’s “Minari” costar Yuh-Jung Youn, a supporting actress nominee, is the first Korean person ever nominated for an acting Oscar. Watch this wonderful talk between Yeun and Ahmed from Actors on Acting about moving from representation to cultural understanding. In our world full of division and domestic terrorism, a little cultural understanding is much needed.

Along with Chadwick Boseman (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), this is also the first time in Oscar history that the best actor category is not majority white. The rest of this year’s diverse slate includes best actress nominees Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) and Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”); and best supporting actor nominees Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”), Leslie Odom Jr. (“One Night in Miami”) and LaKeith Stanfield (“Judas and the Black Messiah”).

Marking a sad milestone, Boseman is also the first actor of color ever to earn a posthumous Oscar nomination. “Oscars Nominate Most Diverse Acting Slate Ever, Including 1st Asian American Best Actor”  Adam B. Vary, March 15, 2021, Variety

It was a watershed year for Oscars diversity beyond the acting categories as well. Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”) became the first woman of color nominated for best director, and with fellow nominee Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”), this is the first year more than one woman has been nominated in this category. Zhao is also the first woman ever to receive four nominations in a single year for best picture, director, film editing and adapted screenplay. “Judas and the Black Messiah” is the first movie with an all-Black producing team — Shaka King, Charles D. King and Ryan Coogler — to be nominated for best picture. The Animation category features an Asian folktale, “Over the Moon”, and Pixar brought us their first lead African American character in “Soul”.

As a film lover who attended many virtual film festivals this year, it’s odd to have films that screened in 2020 competing with films that were just released now in 2021. But then, this past year and now our current state of affairs, is anything but normal…it’s made for an odd Award Season. When the virtual Academy Awards airs on April 25th, I hope to have seen most of the nominated films. I’ve weighed in on the Best Picture nominees and you can read about my favorite 2020 films in another blog post.

Best Picture

Sound of Metal” Available on Amazon Prime Video, 5 blenders of healthy veggie drinks that do nothing for your hearing (out of 5) This film blew my socks off. Director Darius Marder clearly had a great grasp of this story and the realities of living in a Deaf community. The double whammy of having to stay sober and trying to adjust to a whole new reality that’s destroyed your way of life was a revelation that Riz Ahmed brings exuriatingly to life. He’s phenomenal. Olivia Cooke, so good in “Thoroughbreds”, “Little Fish” and “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl” does well with the small but pivotal supporting role. She shows how this character has been sacrificing her life to help save her lover. The sound design is remarkable.

“Nomadland” Watch on Netflix, 5 thermos of coffee (out of 5), read my take on the film here, Searching for Home.

“Promising Young Woman” In theaters and VOD, 5 cocktails that may or may not be spiked (out of 5), Read my full review here, A Call to Arms to Fix Broken Gender Roles.

“Mank” Available on Netflix, 3 coupe glasses of champagne (out of 5), Read my reflections on this film best seen on a big screen, A Black & White Melodrama for those who love Old Hollywood.

“Minari” Available to rent on YouTubeAmazon, and Google Play, 2 Mountain Dews, that healthy American drink (out of 5) Young Alan S Kim is a delight in this film. I wanted to like this story of a Korean family struggling to literally break ground and establish their new lives in rural America. Sadly, I found it predictable and sentimental and the whacky character played by Will Patton kept taking me out of the narrative. It’s wonderful to have another Asian Best Picture Nominee and I applaud the inclusion of this very American story told in another language.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” Watch on Amazon Prime, 2 1/2 cups of bitter office coffee (out of 5) I wanted more of the magnetism of the 21-yr-old Fred Hampton and less of the jittery Judas portrayed by LaKeith Stanfield. Daniel Kaluuya gives an outstanding performance, though I didn’t buy that he was 21; his chemistry with Dominique Fishback seemed realistic. The soundtrack is great and the story important. I wanted more about the Black Panthers and less interactions with the FBI. Jesse Plemons did a great job of portraying the casual racism that those in power took for granted.

The Trail of the Chicago 7” Watch on Netflix, 3 cups of late night coffee consumed while smoking and discussing politics (out of 5) A courtroom drama with a screenplay full of snappy dialogue by Aaron Sorkin, “The Trail of the Chicago 7” asks you to have a background in these character’s stories. There’s no time to fill the audience in with character development and the film is short-changed by that. The shocking treatment of Bobbie Seale (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) drew audible gasps from the audience. A timely reminder of the fight we’re currently in to fight against white supremacy and systemic racism.

“The Father” In theaters and VOD (video on demand) on March 26th–2 glasses of wine. Red, then white. Full, then empty… (out of 5) I applaud the nomination for Production Design. I wouldn’t have given it a best picture nod, though the performances of Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman are top notch. This film is one I can admire and still not want to watch again. Cleverly told thru the viewpoint of someone trying to grasp reality as he loses his understanding of everything going on around him, Hopkins shows us the chaos, anger and confusion consuming him. Colman is equally strong as the daughter trying to cope with a rollercoaster of emotions and a father who is by turns bitter, argumentative, and then witty and warm, and finally, lost. As the house they share morphs to reflect the state of the father’s mind and changing circumstances, the film forces us to take the same confusing journey.

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