#OscarsSlightlyLessWhite: the 2017 Academy Awards

Promotional image for the 89th Academy Awards, featuring the phrase “Oscar 2017” and an image of a golden Academy Award Statue.

It’s no secret that the Academy Awards have historically been less than diverse. Last year, frustrations overflowed after all 20 of the nominees for Best Acting awards were white for the second year in a row. Widespread dissatisfaction with this state of affairs manifested online in the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, coined by activist April Reign.

In response to this criticism, Reign led the Academy in taking some steps to diversify itself. In 2016, the Academy invited 683 new members to its highly secretive roster of approximately 6,000. Of this new class, nearly half were women and people of color: 46% women and 41% POC. (Compare that to the previous year’s class, which was 25% women and 8% POC.) While the Academy remains disproportionately white and male, it has committed to doubling the number of women and minorities in its roster by 2020.

Shockingly, it would almost seem that increasing the number women and people of color in the Academy leads to having more women and people of color nominated in the Academy Awards! Although there is a long way to go before parity is achieved, this year’s Oscars are some of the most diverse yet, and have marked a historic level of achievement for Black performers, directors, writers, and filmmakers. Some of the history-making nominations at the 2017 Oscars include:

Image of a gold Academy Award statue
  • Denzel Washington (Best Actor, Fences) is now the most nominated Black actor, with 5 Best Actor nominations and 2 Best Supporting Actor nominations.
  • Ruth Negga (Best Actress, Loving) is both the first Black Irish and first Black African actress to be nominated for Best Actress, and would be only the second Black woman to receive the award if she wins.
  • Moonlight became only the second film to feature Black nominees for both Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali) and Best Supporting Actress (Naomie Harris.)
  • Viola Davis (Fences) became the most nominated Black actress, with three nominations.
  • Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) is one of only three Black actresses to earn multiple Academy Award nominations, and is the first to be nominated again after winning.
  • For the first time, every acting category has at least one Black nominee. Also for the first time, three of five Supporting Actress nominees are Black.
  • Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) is the first Black filmmaker nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
  • Three films with Black producers were nominated for Best Picture: Denzel Washington’s Fences, Pharrell Williams’s Hidden Figures, and Kimberly Steward’s Manchester by the Sea.

And these gains are not limited to the big-time categories like acting and Best Picture. Even in the smaller, less-publicized categories, the Academy is at last showing some well-deserved love to Black filmmakers.

  • Four out of five Best Documentary nominees came from Black directors: 13thI Am Not Your NegroO.J.: Made in America, and Life, Animated.
  • Joi McMillon (Moonlight) is the first Black woman nominated for Best Editing, and would be the first Black person to take the award if she wins.
  • Bradford Young (Arrival) is the first Black American to be nominated in Best Cinematography.
  • Two of the nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay (Moonlight and Fences) are from Black writers.

So while the awards have not yet been handed out (and may yet be mopped up by La La Land, the charming movie about how white people need to save jazz music), it has already been an unprecedented year for Black filmmakers. We can only look forward to watching the Academy diversify more in the future, and eagerly await the day when Black artists everywhere are given the acclaim they deserve.

(Yes, Grammys, we’re looking at you.)

Want to read more about the history of Black filmmaking and the Academy Awards? Try these Stone Center Library resources:

Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video, edited by Valerie Smith

African Americans and the Oscar: Seven Decades of Struggles and Achievement, by Edward Mapp.

If you want to read Davis’s copy of Hidden Figures before you graduate, you might want to get on the waiting list for it now. While you wait, try some of these from the SCL.

For those who liked Moonlight, try:

Traps: African American Men on Gender and Sexuality, edited by Rudolph P. Byrd and Beverly Guy-Sheftall.

I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters, by Bayard Rustin.

If you preferred Hidden Figures, check out:

Invisible Wings: An Annotated Bibliography on Blacks in Aviation, compiled by Betty Kaplan Gubert

A fan of Fences? Come read it or one of August Wilson’s other plays:

Fences, by August Wilson

The Piano Lesson, by August Wilson

Gem of the Ocean, by August Wilson

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