Front of house: What this year’s Oscar nominations mean for diversity in Hollywood

A man with blonde hair sits in a room working on a project at a desk.
Riz Ahmed, star of “Sound of Metal,” is nominated for Best Actor at the 2021 Oscars. (Courtesy: Amazon Studios)

Throughout 2020, film served as a bright spot of hope and escapism against the hazy and tumultuous backdrop of rapidly changing social and political climates. This year’s Academy Award nominations honor the best of the medium.

Due to limitations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s eligibility requirements allowed for a wider timeframe for releases and more lenient guidelines for films premiering on streaming services. And, with in-person theaters rendered obsolete for an entire year, it’s also no surprise that streaming services dominate this year’s nominations. 

Netflix’s “Mank” leads the pack with 10 nominations, followed by “The Father,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Minari,” “Sound of Metal,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “Nomadland with six nominations each. 

Across all categories, this year’s nominees are significantly more diverse than last year’s lineup. “Sound of Metal” actor Riz Ahmed is the first Muslim actor to be nominated for best actor in a leading role, and “Nomadland” director Chloé Zhao is the first Asian American woman to be nominated for best director

However, it’s important to note that following the social upheaval of the past year, the Academy could not have gotten away with the mostly white lineups of previous years without a publicity disaster. And, despite the increased presence of diverse narratives in the films nominated this year, Hollywood still has a long way to go in terms of accurately portraying the struggles of marginalized groups.

A remarkable number of films nominated this year center around crucial moments in the history of social justice. “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a historical drama following the FBI’s infiltration of the Black Panther Party and the murder of Fred Hampton, received six nominations. Though the Academy’s recognition of “Judas and the Black Messiah” demonstrates an increase in the mainstream media’s reception of critical Black narratives, the film diminishes a lot of what made those narratives important to Black liberation in the first place. 

Hollywood has a history of watering down and whitewashing narratives of Black history, and many have pointed out that “Judas and the Black Messiah” is no different. Not only does the film favor dramatization over accuracy, but it could also be argued that commodifying Black narratives for the consumption of white audiences and institutions like the Academy is problematic in and of itself. 

As blogger juhyundred pointed out, celebration of the inclusion of diverse films in the Oscars lineup is simply upholding the idea that those films require white, Western approval as an indicator of their success.

Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which secured Sorkin a nomination for best original screenplay, is indicative of a similar problem. The film depicts a group of young activists on trial for the intention of inciting riots before the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the conflicts that emerge between them. The movie seems to want to take credit for its radical protagonists while writing over everything that made them radical. 

Historical court transcripts were altered in such a way that dampened Anti-American sentiment activists, and a scene in which Black Panther Party member Bobby Seale was mistreated by courtroom staff was adjusted to make the court’s treatment of Seale appear less violent. These omissions were most likely made in service of the goal of increased palatability to white American audiences. With that in mind, recognition from the Academy starts to seem less like validation of a radical platform and more like evidence of a commercially viable, not too radical film.

Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” however, is a brilliant example of a film that does not distort the narrative that it shares in exchange for palatability. 

“Minari” is a heart-wrenching portrait of the dangers of the search for the American Dream which does not shy away from the bigotry imbued in the attitudes of many white Americans. The audience is shown the heartbreaking progression of the film’s youngest character’s internalizing the xenophobic rhetoric of his peers and turning those words on his family and himself. 

The film is incredibly acted, beautifully shot and heart-wrenchingly real. Actor Steven Yeun also made history, as his nomination for his role in the film makes him the first Asian American to be nominated for the best actor in a leading role category. 

The relationship between social justice and entertainment is complicated, and it can be hard to pin down solutions when the problems themselves are so nebulous. In an ideal world, recognition from institutions like the Academy wouldn’t be seen as the indicator of a narrative’s validity. Perhaps then filmmakers wouldn’t have to alter the stories they share to be afforded a platform. 

It is incredibly refreshing to see new work from diverse talent honored by the Academy. While admiring the work of artists who broke down barriers to emerge in Hollywood, it’s important not to forget the work still has yet to be done in the world in which they’ve arrived.

Caelan Reeves CM ’24 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. They’re a government and literature dual major from Chicago and love everything to do with music, movies and books.

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