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Oscars Could Be Facing Dearth of Diversity Yet Again

Everyone loves a comeback story, especially when a prize is in the offing. But one revival that might bedevil the upcoming 90th edition of the Academy Awards won’t be so warmly received. Namely, the boomerang return of a dearth of diversity that haunted both the 2014 and 2015 contests in the four acting categories (as white as bleached snow) as well as in the Best Picture and Best Director races. Yes, the Martin Luther King biopic “Selma” found a best-picture berth in 2014, but its much-praised director (Ava DuVernay) and star (David Oyelowo) were snubbed. Meanwhile, Mexican-born Alejandro G. Inarittu did manage to collect rare back-to-back directing Oscars for “Birdman” and “The Revenant” in those years, but that was meager compensation.   

Glancing at the pool of possible 2017 Oscar candidates listed on the Gold Derby awards prediction site, it is highly unlikely to be a repeat of last year when seven acting nominees of color—the most ever—made the cut. That is in addition to four out of the eight Best Picture contenders—“Lion,” “Fences,” “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight,” the eventual victor—featuring casts that were largely non-white. As for the directing category, “Moonlight’s” Barry Jenkins became the fourth black filmmaker to earn a directing nod (next time, a win would be nice).

What a difference a year makes. “There is a noticeable lack of color among the titles and talent being promoted,” says Tom O’Neill, the grand pooh-bah of prognosticators at Gold Derby. “But we haven’t heard from Oscar voters. It is a little early to accuse them yet. But it looks like the problem might be back.”

Since the acting choices have been the biggest sticking point in the recent past, let’s check those out first. Most troublesome? The Best Actress possibilities. The problem isn’t quality but the quantity of quality. Although Sally Hawkins in the romantic fantasy “The Shape of Water” (pictured above) is out front for now, any time you have Meryl Streep (“The Post”), Frances McDormand (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird”) and Jessica Chastain (“Molly’s Game”) in the top five, that’s Oscar-magnet heaven. All these ladies have been nominated before—and all multiple times save for Hawkins. Meanwhile, Streep and McDormand already have a little gold man—and in mighty Meryl’s case, three—at home.

The second tier of five is equally daunting: Kate Winslet (“Wonder Wheel”), Judi Dench (“Victoria & Abdul”), Emma Stone (“Battle of the Sexes”), Nicole Kidman (“The Beguiled”) and Annette Bening (“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”). All, save for four-time nominee Bening, have won an Oscar.

Unfortunately, the only two actresses of color on the Gold Derby list are Salma Hayek for her indie sleeper "Beatriz at Dinner" and Halle Berry for “Kings,” a drama that takes place during the 1992 L.A. riots that has been slammed by the handful of reviewers who have seen it. 

The Best Supporting Actress list is slightly more promising. Octavia Spencer of “The Shape of Water” occupies the fifth spot in the odds rankings. At the top is a mighty movie mom squad consisting of Laurie Metcalf in “Lady Bird," Alison Janney in “I, Tonya” and Holly Hunter in “The Big Sick,” followed by Melissa Leo’s Reverend Mother in “Novitiate.” A few rungs down you will find POC beyond Spencer in the form of singer-turned-actress Mary J. Blige in “Mudbound” and newcomer Hong Chau, who is of Vietnamese descent and a standout in “Downsizing.” Both films have yet to open, but the supporting category is less averse to sneaking in a relative Academy newcomer.

As for leading men, Gary Oldman’s take on Churchill in “Darkest Hour” (pictured above) has been sitting pretty at No. 1 for a while. Overdue doesn’t come close to describing how deserving this British actor is, considering his first-ever nomination was for George Smiley in 2011’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” His competition at the moment? Daniel Day-Lewis in “Phantom Thread,” Tom Hanks in “The Post,” up-and-comer Timothee Chalamet in “Call Me by Your Name” and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Stronger.” Diversity arrives at No. 6 in the form of a de-glammed Denzel Washington in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” Meanwhile, Chadwick Boseman in “Marshall” and Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out” lurk among the also-rans for now.

Favorite supporting dudes? Willem Dafoe is almost as overdue as Oldman and has even better odds for a rare everyman role in “The Florida Project.” Then comes Michael Stuhlbarg and Armie Hammer in “Call Me by Your Name,” Mark Rylance in “Dunkirk” and Sam Rockwell in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Only two African-American actors pop up with any chance of making the cut: Jason Mitchell in “Mudbound” and Sterling K. Brown in “Marshall.”  

What about the Best Picture rankings? Right now, Christopher Nolan’s ground-breaking World War II epic “Dunkirk” (pictured at top) with its overwhelmingly British white-male depictions of heroism is poised as the current movie to beat for Best Picture.

Meanwhile, another summer opener, the highly anticipated “Detroit,” a violent account of the 1967 outbreak of racially-charged unrest that shook the city, quickly sunk at the box office along with its awards chances. With Kathryn Bigelow (who remains the only female director to snag an Oscar after winning for 2009’s “The Hurt Locker”) in charge, hopes were high and reviews were mostly positive. But some resented the fact that events were filtered through the eyes of a white filmmaker and screenwriter (Mark Boal). Also not helping matters: the late-July opening date, timed to when the real-life events occurred. Unlike “Dunkirk,” which also came out in summer, “Detroit” was far from rah-rah material.

“It appeared to have it all,” says Sasha Stone, the founder and overseer of the website Awards Daily. “A woman director, a black cast, a heavy-duty topic.” But whatever early buzz existed for “Detroit” quickly evaporated and audiences just weren’t in the mood.

Instead, two other films featuring African-American actors and themes have an outside chance to fill in that blank. Sundance fave “Mudbound” (pictured above), about two families—one white, one black—trying to make a life in World War II-era rural Mississippi, has received glowing reviews. The film’s black female director, Dee Rees, previously earned plaudits for her 2011 lesbian coming-of-age story “Pariah.”

“Mudbound” fits the mold of the sort of meditative and socially relevant indie film that voters often embrace. On the flip side is “Get Out,” the satirical horror film directed by comedian Jordan Peele that despite its $4.5 million budget managed to scare up $253 million worldwide. One problem when it comes to Oscars: only two real horror films have ever been nominated for best picture, 1973’s “The Exorcist” and 1991’s “Silence of the Lambs,” which took the prize.

Could Peele become the fifth black director to be recognized by the director’s branch? Possibly. But right now, Nolan, the general of ”Dunkirk,” might finally get his statuette due. Others who might stand in his way are presumed to be Steven Spielberg (“The Post”), Mexican-born Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”) and Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me by Your Name”).

Don’t forget about gender, either. Right now, Greta Gerwig—whose “Lady Bird” has taken flight in a big way—is at No. 5. It’s been eight years since a female was allowed into this elite circle. “The Beguiled’s” Sofia Coppola, whose “Lost in Translation” made her the third woman ever nominated for Best Director, is right below and followed by Rees for “Mudbound." 

Yes, Oscar pickings are looking a bit pale at this stage of the game. But before you haul out the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite again, let’s look on the bright side and salute one fairly major step for Hollywood kind taken by the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences in order to better reflect the world at large.

Measures have been made to at least rectify the overwhelming whiteness, maleness and senior-citizen status of most eligible Oscar voters. At the start of 2016, the group’s 6,261 members were estimated to be 92 percent white and 75 percent men. The average age? About 63 or so. But those demographics are starting to shift, thanks to former Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who stepped down earlier this year after serving her allowed four terms. The first African-American and third woman to hold the position, she made it her mission to change those statistics for the better.  

As Isaacs noted in a Q&A session last fall at the Middleburg Film Festival in Virginia, addressing the lopsidedness of the membership, "Obviously, there was something wrong with this, especially when inside the industry you see much more diversity. I do believe the mass majority of our members care very much about recognizing talent. So, you have to make that pool more representative of the work that is done in the entertainment business."

The way she did that was to increase the number of invitations sent out each year to a wider array of potential newbies. In 2013, the first year that Isaacs was in charge, the Academy lifted its cap and reached out to 276 newbies—doubling the average amount during the previous eight years. In 2014, 271 got the call. In 2015, 322 were summoned. Then, in 2016, the number boomed to a record 683, only to be bested this year with 774 invites. 

Slowly but surely some progress is being made now that there are an estimated 8,500 members. That now includes 13 percent people of color, up from 8 percent in 2015, and 28 percent women, compared to 25 percent in 2015. Isaacs also upped the diversity quotient of the Board of Governors during her presidency. Out of 54 governors, five are African-American, two are of Asian descent and one is part Mexican.

The Academy still has a way to go to fully mix and mingle its membership roster. But they can only nominate from what the industry has deigned to produce in a given year. It all depends on what studios decide to promote as their designated Oscar contenders. And if they lack diversity, you can’t blame the voters for not doing a better job.

But what might be a real test this year is whether the most popular and profitable genre since the dawn of the 21st century lands among the Best Picture category: The superhero adventure. After all, the number of films that are eligible for Oscar’s top honor was expanded to between five and 10 in response to the outcry over 2008’s “The Dark Knight” being overlooked. The voters have embraced sci-fi in a big way since the expansion by tagging “District 9,” “Avatar,” “Inception,” “Her,” “Gravity,” “The Martian," “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Arrival.”

We will see if Isaacs’ handiwork has paid off if “Wonder Woman,” the second top-grossing movie so far this year with $412 million in domestic ticket sales, is able to lasso a Best Picture nomination or even a nod for director Patty Jenkins. Not only would it rally young people to watch the ceremony on TV. The move would be a fitting send-off to Harvey Weinstein’s ugly reign of Oscar terror and abuse of the female race.

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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