Oscars: How Inclusive Could the 2021 Winners List Be?


In 2016, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences then president Cheryl Boone Isaacs vowed to double the number of women and people of color who belonged to the organization. She was responding to the firestorm that was #OscarsSoWhite, a hashtag created by April Reign that critiqued the all-white slate of acting nominees at the 2015 Oscars. The hashtag grew into a social media campaign, highlighting the serious lack of diversity among the Academy’s membership—which was reportedly 91% white and 77% male at the time—and, subsequently, in the films and performances that wound up earning Oscar nominations. The hashtag later inspired a 2016 Oscar boycott started by Jada Pinkett Smith, and cosigned by Will Smith, Ryan Coogler, Spike Lee, and Ava DuVernay. 

Since then, the Academy has made aggressive strides to combat its lack of diversity, creating new inclusion standards (with questionable efficacy) and, more consequentially, inviting hundreds upon hundreds of new members each year to better reflect the full breadth of the film world. This year, Isaacs’s original strides seem to have paid off, as the Academy stands on the precipice of one of the most inclusive and diverse Oscar ceremonies in decades. Chief among the potential historic achievements? For the first time, a woman of color could win best director and have her film win best picture—and all the acting trophies could be handed to people of color as well.

If all the Oscar forecasting is correct, Chloé Zhao could win best director for Nomadland, her naturalistic drama draped in perpetual magic hour. The film, starring Frances McDormand as a woman who lives a nomadic lifestyle in her van, picking up odd jobs and traveling through the West, was an early favorite in the awards race, and has only picked up steam in the last few weeks. Zhao recently won best director at the Directors Guild Awards, the closest analog to an Oscar predictor. 

With her nomination alone, Zhao has already made Oscar history as the first Chinese woman—and, more broadly, the first woman of color—to be nominated for best director. She’s also a producer on Nomadland. If it wins best picture, as it’s predicted to do, she would take home an additional statuette. That would also mark the first time a film directed by a woman took home best picture since The Hurt Locker in 2010.

Prior to this year, only five women in Oscar history had even been nominated for best director, and only one has won: Hurt Locker filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow. Though Zhao is now the first woman of color to be nominated in the category, there have been several notable snubs in recent memory that have led up to this moment. There was an outcry when Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King Jr. drama Selma was nominated for best picture and best original song, but was passed over in the directing category. Similarly, Lulu Wang’s 2019 breakthrough The Farewell was snubbed entirely by the Academy, despite picking up several statuettes over the course of the awards season and earning considerable buzz from Oscar pundits. 

Zhao, meanwhile, seems like a lock in the best-director category. She’s also already had a dress rehearsal for her possible big Oscar moment this Sunday. At the Golden Globes, she became the first Asian woman, and first woman of color, to win best director. Nomadland also won best drama, making it the first film directed by a woman to win the prize. Zhao also became the first Asian woman to produce a best drama winner. After her wins, Zhao spoke bashfully about her historic wins in the pressroom, taking it all in stride. 

“Sometimes a first feels like a long time coming,” she told reporters. “I’m sure there’s many others before me that deserve the same recognition. I just love what I do. I just really love it. If this means more people like me get to live their dream and get to do what I do, I’m happy.”

History could also be made in almost every acting category this year. The entirety of this year’s acting statuettes could be won by actors of color, a first in Oscar history. In the best-actor category, Chadwick Boseman is expected to notch a posthumous win for his turn as stubborn, tragic cornet player Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In the best-supporting-actor category, Daniel Kaluuya is considered a lock for his portrayal of Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah. And in the best-supporting-actress category, South Korean star Yuh-Jung Youn is expected to win for her turn as the beloved grandmother in Minari. The only category that may break the pattern is best actress. Carey Mulligan is, according to pundits, on track to take this one thanks to her searing turn in the revenge thriller Promising Young Woman, potentially beating out competitors like Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday). 

Still, the nominations alone have made history in this category. When Davis and Day were nominated, it marked the first time in decades that two Black women appeared in the category at the same time. The last time was in 1973, when Cicely Tyson and Diana Ross were both nominated: Tyson for her turn in the Depression-era drama Sounder, and Ross for her turn as Billie Holiday in the biopic Lady Sings the Blues. There’s a touch of kismet in the fact that Day, too, is being nominated for playing Billie Holiday. “It’s been forever,” Day said of reaching the same historic benchmark as Tyson and Ross in a previous interview with Vanity Fair, noting that she’s excited to share the honor with Davis. “I look at Viola [and] I revel in it in that way too. It’s amazing to be part of history.”



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