2021 Oscars: A moment or a movement?

On March 24, 2002, history was made.

That evening, at the 74th annual Academy Awards, Halle Berry became the first (and as of this writing, only) Black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in “Monster’s Ball.” It was also the night that Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Oscar for his work in “Training Day,” becoming at that time only the second Black actor to have won the prize after the indelible Sidney Poitier, who himself was awarded with an Honorary Oscar at the ceremony.

This degree of representation and recognition for Black talent at the Oscars was then unheard of. To provide some perspective: Before Berry and Washington, only six Black actors had ever won an Oscar in one of the four acting categories. And with the exception of the aforementioned Poitier, they were all in the supporting field (including Washington’s first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in “Glory”).

For 74 years, that was it. But in 2002, Berry and Washington not only won — they won as leads. Their victories were rightly touted as a watershed moment for Black talent in Hollywood. The keyword, however, is “moment.”

When interviewed by The New York Times two days after the ceremony, Reuben Cannon, the first Black casting director for a major movie studio, tempered his enthusiasm. “I am thrilled about what took place last night,” he said. “It is significant. But we should not mistake a moment for a movement. It’s a significant moment. Whether it’s a movement, only time will tell.” (Shoutout Be Kind Rewind, an absolutely essential film video essayist whose work alerted me to this quote.)

His caution proved correct. In 2015, the Academy nominated only white actors (20 in total) in all four of its acting categories. In 2016, they did it again. The collective online outrage took the form of #OscarsSoWhite, which inspired the Oscar voting bloc to diversify its membership in the five years since, not only by race but by gender and age as well. It is these structural, systemic changes to the Academy that are largely credited with the rousing success of “Parasite” at last year’s ceremony — that, and the fact that “Parasite” is perfect.

But you know what else happened at the 2020 Oscars? Cynthia Erivo was the only person of color to be nominated for an acting award — for playing Harriet Tubman, no less.

Last Sunday, the Academy unveiled the nominees for the 93rd Academy Awards, and they were, without question, the most diverse of all time. They were also, in their own way, as predictable as ever. Just to flex, here are some nomination predictions I threw together in an Apple Note the weekend before the announcement. I got three categories perfect, in two I missed only one nominee and for Best Picture, I forgot that the Academy can nominate anywhere from five to 10 movies, not just 10. Still, the eight nominees we got were on my list!

Among the many achievements of this year’s crop, the one I saw touted the most was Best Director, where we have for the first time two female nominees — Chloé Zhao for “Nomadland” and Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman.” If the former wins the award — as many suspect she will, and as I believe she should — she would become only the second woman to have done so, after Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker,” as well as the first woman of color. (Also, Thomas Vinterberg was nominated for “Another Round.” Where did that come from?)

The acting categories are equally exciting. Of the 20 nominees, nine are actors of color. And with the late Chadwick Boseman for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and Daniel Kaluuya for “Judas and the Black Messiah” all but guaranteed to win Best Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively, we also have good reason to expect some diversity among the victors. Side note: If Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield are nominated for Best Supporting Actor for “Judas,” who is the protagonist?

But that’s beside the point. The point is: Is this a moment, or a movement? Is this undeniable progress a reflection of a deep-seated shift in the Academy, or is it because of the countless films that were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, which all but forced the Academy to think outside the (white, male) box?

In all likelihood, it’s probably both. To be frank, I don’t think we’d be seeing this diversity if it weren’t for COVID-19. Not because these nominees are undeserving — au contraire! — but because movies about, by and for people of color are slighted to such a degree by the industry that it was willing to release them in the middle of a pandemic when theaters across the country were closed. At the same time, inducting filmmakers of color into the voting bloc is a promising first step in combating its myopia; in fact, doing so has already rewarded us.

But as Reuben Cannon put it, “Only time will tell.”

This article was originally published on March 18, 2021 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.


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