EDITORIAL: Welcome dose of Oscar diversity
There are arguably more important issues to parse in our politically divisive times, but as the entertainment industry’s premiere cultural touchstone, the Academy Awards offer a valid, if imprecise, gauge of the national consciousness.
As a global-spotlight magnet, the film industry’s top honors bring out-sized attention to not only the talented artists who work in front of and behind the camera, but to the issues they explore, the chapters of history they revisit, and the commentary they offer on matters political, cultural and sociological.
A movie like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” from 1969, for example, with its convention-flouting protagonists, captured that era’s enmity for authority just as astutely, and far more subtly, than that year’s more literal “Easy Rider.”
“Wall Street,” from 1987, with its “greed is good” ethic, reflected the heady, deregulatory days of the 1980s.
Even non-Oscar-caliber offerings, like the slew of radioactive-monster movies that filled drive-ins during the 1950s were an outgrowth of the perils and preoccupations of the newly dawned Atomic Age.
As for this year’s Academy Award nominations, announced Tuesday, if there was anything established about the film industry’s current social conscience, it is that the industry has one.
The list of top nominees — with talented women and artists of color recognized in rising numbers — was more representative of the nation at large and less akin to, say, too many Fortune 500 boards of directors.
To name just a few highlights: Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig and Guillermo del Torro were all nominated for both direction and best original screenplay.
Gerwig, honored for “Lady Bird,” became just the fifth woman nominated as best director. Only one, Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker” in 2009, has ever won.
Peele, recently of the comedy duo Key and Peele, was nominated for “Get Out” — only the third horror film (after “The Exorcist” and “Silence of the Lambs”) to earn a best picture nomination. He is only the fifth African-American director to be nominated for an Academy Award. None has previously won.
Gerwig and Peele’s films, along with del Torro’s “The Shape of Water,” are among the nine best picture nominees.
Another noteworthy nod: Rachel Morrison received a best cinematography nomination for “Mudbound,” making her the first woman so named in that category.
And “Mudbound” accounted for one of four performing nominations going to actors of color: Mary J. Blige is up for best supporting actress for her work in the film. Her competition includes Octavia Spencer from “The Shape of Water.” In the best actor category, two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington (“Roman J. Israel, Esq.”) and Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) are among the hopefuls.
In short, the still overwhelmingly white and male Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences continues to move in the right direction after years of embarrassingly monochromatic nominations resulted in the “OscarSoWhite" movement.
There’s room for improvement, of course. Four out of 20 acting nominations hardly make for a rainbow coalition of performers. And there was almost no representation among Asian and Latino artists.
That gets to the true crux of the problem.
The biggest contributing factor to the dearth of nominations for women and artists of color is not so much bias in voting as it is a lack of opportunity to get their work on the big screen in the first place.
That’s what makes nominations that recognize diverse talent so important: They open the doors a little more widely for those who have traditionally been relegated to the sidelines or, at best, token participation.
And it’s no headline that lack of equal opportunity is rampant in many more industries than just the one that makes films. (Not to mention the related issue of inequitable compensation.)
So, this year’s nominations are an acknowledgment of diverse talent, yes, but also a reflection of slow but welcome headway in opportunities for non-white, non-male artists.
The movie industry is nowhere near the goal of full equality. But even so, too many other industries are nowhere near the film industry.