Did the Academy Awards (and Hollywood) Finally “Get” Diversity?

by Catherine Arjet

opinions editor


Last year I wrote an article for the Purple & White about the blatant exclusion of people of color from the Academy Awards. After seeing numerous incredible films about people of color representing a bevy of races and ethnicities during this year’s winter break, I waited expectantly to see which (if any) of them would be recognized this year. The optimistic part of me hoped that we’d see these films represented well in the nomination, and the pessimistic part of me feared that the Academy would give a few nominations to one or two of these movies and then go back to fawning over white actors and white stories. I was pleasantly surprised.

Although blindingly white La La Land dominated the nominations this year, overall, diversity is much higher than that of last year. While all 20 of the actors nominated last year were white, only 13 are this year. The remaining seven include six black actors and one Indian man (Dev Patel). Although worth noting, although he was not nominated for an acting Oscar, writer/composer/actor Lin Manuel Miranda received a nomination from best original song. It’s been an especially good year for black actresses; Ruth Negga earned a best actress nomination for her work in Loving and Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis and Naomie Harris were all nominated for best supporting actress for their roles in Hidden Figures, Fences and Moonlight respectively, with Davis becoming the first African American woman to be nominated for three Oscars.

This is not like it has been in years past where one film that tells the story of a person of color (like 12 Years a Slave) earned many Oscar nod, but was an anomaly among a sea of white movies. Instead this year, and these nominations showed us a bevy of stories of people of color. In every feature length film category, except best foreign language film, there are more movies that center around people of color nominated this year than last year, for a grand total of eleven — more than double last year’s total of five from the same categories. These stories are as diverse in feeling and subject matter as they are in casts. The 13th and Moonlight are grounded in the harsh realities of the lives of black people in America, while Lion tells the story of an adopted Indian-Australian man looking for his biological family, Loving, Hidden Figures and Fences all look back to midcentury America, and Moana tells the story of a plucky Polynesian girl with magic powers.

This diversity in the types of films matters. In this year’s batch of Oscar nominees, we see people of color doing things besides suffering (don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of suffering in these movies, there’s just also material besides that), we get to see their dreams and triumphs and quests for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. In other words, these movies show people of color experiencing more of the full spectrum of human experience that white characters have always gotten to use.

The Academy and Hollywood still have a long way to go both in making movies about people of color (for example, why was La La Land so white? Either Emma Stone or Ryan Gosling’s characters would have worked as people of color) and recognizing the feats of minority artists (I, for one, would have liked to see Taraji P. Henson from Hidden Figures nominated for best actress). However, this year shows progress and, while the cynical part of me thinks it may be an anomaly, the myriad of nomination for non-white artists gives me hope that Hollywood and the Academy will continue to even the playing field for everyone.