Strange times can breed strange behaviours. For proof, just think back to the beginning of this pandemic when people prioritised hoarding toilet paper above all else. Then, this morning, a little over a year since all this started, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released this year’s Oscar nominees, serving as a reminder that this pandemic affects us all…even the mostly white, mostly male members of the Academy, it seems.
You see, the sky is blue, water is wet, and the Academy has a problem with nominating women and minorities in key categories. This year, though, the slate of nominees is the most diverse it has ever been, which comes six years after the #OscarsSoWhite first started, but hey, it only took a deadly global pandemic for the Academy to really change their ways.
There are a lot of firsts this year. Most notable are the nominations of Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell in the Best Director category, which marks the first time two women have been nominated for the award at the same time! It is inexcusable that we are this far into the 21st century yet only now can we say that. And unlike the Golden Globes, the Academy has yet to nominate a majority of women in the category, at least proving that the pandemic has not stripped its members of their uncanny ability to slow-walk progress. Though, do bear in mind that despite David Fincher’s Mank earning the most nominations of the ceremony, I maintain, just as I did with the Golden Globes, that Zhao is the dark horse here, as her timely drama Nomadland has a chance to come away big on the night.
Additionally, Chloé Zhao is the first female director of Chinese descent to be nominated in the Directing category, while former The Walking Dead actor Steven Yeun is the first Asian American actor to be nominated for Best Actor (again, how did this take so long?) for his performance in critical darling Minari. Viola Davis, then, received her fourth Oscar nod for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, now making her the most nominated actress of colour ever.
Such significant steps towards diversity make it easier to forgive the lack of Canadian nominees. Halifax filmmaker Ben Proudfoot is the lone Canadian in the mix this year, earning a nod in the Best Documentary Short Subject category for his work on A Concerto Is a Conversation. I also noted in a previous article that Regina King’s directorial debut One Night in Miami was looking like an early frontrunner, but it’s only nominations are Best Supporting Actor and Best Song for Leslie Odom Jr. (sharing the latter with Sam Ashworth) and Best Adapted Screenplay for Kemp Powers, overlooking King as well as Canadian actor Eli Goree for his uncanny portrayal of Cassius Clay.
It is very much worth noting, however, that because of the pandemic the Academy were working off a smaller pool of films, of which an even larger percentage come from streaming services rather than studios who release to theatres (Netflix leads all others with thirty-five nominations), and as such were not as blatantly obligated to nominate some commercially successful vehicle for the ratings. Denis Villeneuve’s wildly anticipated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune is one such big budget studio film whose release date has been significantly delayed due to the pandemic and misses out on this year’s Oscars as a result, but could very well garner significant awards consideration when–or perhaps if–the film releases in October.
No matter what, this year’s Academy Awards will go down in history because of the pandemic, but hopefully that is not where it ends, given its admirably diverse list of nominees. And if you consider the baffling decision to nominate both Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield in the Best Supporting Actor category, despite being the film’s two leads (their faces are on the poster, dammit!), or that the Academy actually had the humility to recognise the brilliant work of Maria Bakalova in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, perhaps the surprises will keep coming on the night.