Oscar nominations were announced Jan. 13 and celebrities, media outlets and “film Twitter” were all quick to recognize a number of snubs that felt especially egregious. There was, of course, the obvious. No female filmmakers were nominated in the best director race, Jennifer Lopez — an acknowledged front-runner for best supporting actress — received no nomination for her performance in “Hustlers” and critically acclaimed films “The Farewell” and “Uncut Gems” from indie powerhouse A24 were not acknowledged by the academy in any capacity.
And while many acknowledged the nominations’ stunning lack of diversity, especially when it came down to the acting categories, the narrative of another #OscarsSoWhite seemed far less pressing than it did just a few years ago. Sure, the academy just narrowly escaped a slate of all-white acting nominees by nominating British performer Cynthia Erivo in the lead actress category for her performance as Harriet Tubman in the biopic “Harriet.” But after multiple years that saw actors of color acknowledged for their performances in nuanced, innovative new stories, and in an era in which the academy has seemingly attempted to make up for its previous insularity through membership changes, this year’s predominantly white list of acting nominees is especially disappointing.
The Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite started trending in 2015 after April Reign, then-managing editor of BroadwayBlack.com, reacted to the complete lack of acting nominations for performers of color. When this apparent whitewashing of acting categories occurred for a second year in a row, the academy responded to criticism by announcing efforts to increase the number of women and people of color in its membership by 2020.
And initially, the thought of a voting body that more accurately represented modern filmmakers’ — and audiences’ — identities and interests seemed promising. Films that centered on the stories of people of color were receiving nominations for best picture, and actors of color were being recognized — though predominantly in supporting, rather than leading, categories — for their performances.
If it wasn’t already clear from the 2019 best picture win for “Green Book,” a film that many found fault with for its apparent white-savior narrative and seemingly sugarcoated take on race, then the 2020 Oscar nominations seemingly confirm that the academy is still deeply out of touch. In a year in which creative and original stories featuring artists of color received critical praise and connected with viewers, it’s a shame that they are not being recognized alongside films and performances that feature mainly white actors.
What’s more, it’s something that’s especially evident when looking at the lead and supporting actress categories.
There is no shortage of performances that were deserving of nominations. Lupita Nyong’o’s standout dual performance in “Us” was terrifyingly intense and emotional, and won her a number of best actress prizes from critics’ circles. Despite receiving a Screen Actors Guild, or SAG, nomination, Nyong’o missed out on a best actress nomination from the academy. Awkwafina won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy for her role in “The Farewell” earlier this year, becoming the first woman of Asian descent to win the award for any lead actress category. Nonetheless, she, and “The Farewell” as a whole, were snubbed come the announcement of Oscar nominations.
Both Nyong’o and Awkwafina were recognized as being “on the cusp” of a nomination. But the conversation quickly turned to a question of which actress of color would claim the coveted fifth spot, with Scarlett Johansson, Saoirse Ronan, Renée Zellweger and Charlize Theron seen as apparent locks for nominations early on. While Cynthia Erivo was ultimately the one to receive a nomination, the message that the academy sends by rejecting actresses in contemporary roles to recognize an actress playing a slave ultimately appears to perpetuate a toxic notion: Actors of color must seemingly be relegated to biopics and archetypes — and in the case of Black actors, forced to relay a traumatic history on-screen — in order to be recognized.
Not recognizing actors of color isn’t merely because of an oversight on voters’ behalf or even an excessively “crowded” field of white actors, as some might claim. In the case of Jennifer Lopez, who received plenty of critical acclaim and was previously considered a front-runner in the best supporting actress category for her performance in “Hustlers,” it seemed as if the academy had gone out of its way to keep her out of the race. Lopez had previously received nominations at the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice Movie Awards and SAG Awards, all ceremonies that are considered precursors to the Oscars. To not recognize her with a nomination was not only a mark of seeming laziness on behalf of voters, but indicated an apparent refusal to see actresses, especially of color, in nuanced, progressive roles.
The argument that recognizing diverse art and performances at the Oscars is entirely dependent on more studios funding these films is fundamentally flawed. Not recognizing performers of color at prestigious ceremonies creates a dangerous feedback loop; studios may be less inclined to invest in campaigns for films about people of color if they know it won’t be worthwhile.
Yes, studios must give filmmakers and actors of color a chance; they should also consider representation in the projects that they are funding, increasing the number of projects that feature new cultural and racial narratives on-screen. But at the same time, the academy needs sweeping changes in its membership and priorities — not merely incremental ones — if we are to see any meaningful change in the films that are produced by studios and championed at awards programs.