At the end of last month, actors Allison Williams and Riz Ahmed announced the long-awaited Oscar nominations. After a year full of groundbreaking cinema, including a thriving independent filmmaking scene and the re-emergence of the Hollywood summer blockbuster, the list of possible nominations was fiercely debated. While many of this year’s nominations are history-making and causes for celebration, these accomplishments only exist relative to shocking omissions. This paradox raises the question: is the Academy’s promise for more inclusivity an empty one?
When predicting Oscar nominations, there is a lot to consider. Top contenders are calculated based on their other nominations of the year, press campaigns, and the Oscars shortlists. Although some people, like Ben Zauzmer from The Hollywood Reporter, use mathematical equations to meticulously chart the likelihood of specific outcomes, as this year’s nominations show, there will always be surprises. Paul Dano, an established actor who has never received a nomination for an Academy Award despite his extensive film canon, missed out on a nomination for his role in The Fabelmans. However, Brian Tyree Henry got a spot on this list, earning him his first ever nomination for Causeway, a film whose campaign was much more subdued than its counterparts. Other surprises include Paul Mescal’s nomination for best actor. His performance in Aftersun has been admired by many, but as Alli Rosenbloom explained for CNN, it was unexpected that an actor with minimal filmography to his name and a film with a limited budget would go on to receive a nomination.
Everything, Everywhere all at Once (EEAAO), the absurdist film from the directing duo the Daniels, took the coveted spot of most nominated film with 11 nods in various categories. After its premiere at SXSW early last year, critics’ and moviegoers’ reviews were overwhelmingly positive. The campaign trail was a momentous feat; the film became A24’s highest-grossing film to date and made back their relatively small budget in abundance. EEAAO has proved to the entertainment industry that films beyond the tight restrictions of a typical Hollywood blockbuster can be successful; in fact, they’re what audiences want.
This year’s nominations mark a record-breaking year for Asian performers. The majority of EEAAO’s cast was recognized in several different categories. Stephanie Hsu and Key Huy Quon both got Supporting Actor nods, and the film’s star, Michelle Yeoh – an actress who, through the years, has accumulated a diverse body of work – garnered a Best Actress nomination. This recognition makes Michelle Yeoh the first Asian-identifying woman to ever be nominated in the category. In a similar vein, Hong Chau, a Vietnamese-American actress, received a supporting nomination for her performance in The Whale. Another cause for celebration is Angela Bassett, who received a nomination for her role in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. She joins these history-makers as the first actor to earn an Oscar nomination for a performance in a Marvel Cinematic Universe film.
While these surprises showed promising changes for the industry, the holes in this year’s ballot tell another story. The first upset worth mentioning is the Best Director category. Though two woman directors, Chloé Zhao and Jane Campion, won the award in the past two years, this is not an excuse for the lack of female nominations on the ballot. Directors of outstanding films such as Sarah Polley for Women Talking, Charlotte Wells for Aftersun, and Gina Prince-Bythewood for The Woman King were not nominated. Yet Steven Spielberg wracked up his ninth nomination in the category for his film The Fabelmans.
In the 95 years since the conception of the Academy Awards, a Black woman has never been nominated for Best Director. The omission of Black women amongst nominees is also evident in the Best Actress category, where frontrunners Viola Davis, for The Woman King, and Danielle Deadwyler, for Till, went unnoticed by the Academy. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Prince-Bythewood spoke out about what the exclusion of Black women in this year’s nominees means to her and the state of the industry. She admits to being disappointed, especially because of the undeniable success of her film The Woman King, in both box office numbers and critical responses. However, the focus of her words was on the Black women who felt overlooked this year, as well as in many past years: “It’s not a snub. It’s a reflection of where the Academy stands and the consistent chasm between Black excellence and recognition.” Deadwyler and her director, Chinonye, echoed similar remarks in the past few days. Readers can hear the lead actress’s full remarks on the podcast “Kermode & Mayo’s Take.”
In her interview, Prince-Blythewood acknowledges the campaign trails of Davis and Deadwyler, who were Black actresses backed by studios but lacking in the social capital of other nominees. These remarks come as a response to Andrea Riseborough’s unexpected nomination for Best Actress. A Vulture article explains how her film To Leslie received minimal attention until a grassroots social media campaign, spearheaded by famous actors such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Edward Norton, Helen Hunt, and Alan Cumming, pushed for her to be recognized, causing a stir online over the fairness of such tactics. The celebrity-led campaign came on behalf of independent white creators, while Black artists – never mind box office and critical hit films like The Woman King – proceeded the way the system told them to and went unrecognized. In another article on the topic, film critic Robert Daniels resists pointing the finger at Riseborough and instead poses the following question to readers of the Los Angeles Times: “What does it say that the Black women who did everything the institution asks of them — luxury dinners, private academy screenings, meet-and-greets, splashy television spots and magazine profiles — are ignored when someone who did everything outside of the system is rewarded?”
Many other films were excluded entirely from the list of nominations. The South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook’s film Decision to Leave was not nominated in any category, despite the director receiving the award for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival this past year. The omission has frustrated many cinephiles, especially since South Korea is full of influential filmmakers, and yet, its only acknowledgment from the Academy was for Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite. The lack of nominations points to the Oscars’ shallow attempts at representation – attempts that tick off boxes rather than acknowledge non-white creators whose works are better. The same goes for the film She Said, which speaks directly about the film industry and the disgraced industry titan Harvey Weinstein. Jordan Peele’s third feature, the sci-fi horror film Nope, also received no recognition.
With pressure from the #OscarsSoWhite social justice campaign spearheaded by April Reign’s 2015 tweet, and the initiation of the Time’s Up movement, Hollywood has promised to take action to ensure a more diverse and inclusive future for several years now. Despite some achievements in diversity and gender representation over the past few years, the missing names in this year’s nominations show otherwise. It seems that the inherent flaws of the Academy Awards are consistently patched up with empty promises. As Prince-Bythewood explains, the legacy of these awards is not something to be dismissed. Winning an Academy Award has a far more significant impact than bragging rights: “What awards give you is currency. They impact your standing. They impact the box office. They impact the steps you take in this industry. They impact who gets final cut.” As trivial as an Oscar may seem, that gold statue means something. Awards can change a career, an audience’s perspective, or even push the industry in different directions. This year’s nominations are divided; while some represent the possibilities of a more inclusive future, the missing names remind us that Hollywood’s exclusionary history is still present and demands immediate attention.