Oscars: Will the Academy Embrace Diversity Like the Emmys? (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst surveys the field and sees big potential for films about people of color — from fest faves 'Birth of a Nation' and 'Loving' to upcoming 'Fences' and 'A United Kingdom,' plus 'Hidden Figures," which is moving into 2016.
Courtesy of Focus Features;Bron Studios;Fox 2000 Pictures
From left: 'Loving,' 'The Birth of a Nation' and 'Hidden Figures'

The 68th Emmy nominations, announced Thursday, put recent Oscar nominations to shame by shining a spotlight on an incredibly diverse array of series and talent. The TV Academy nominated 21 non-white actors across 16 acting categories, a dramatic contrast to the last two years of Oscar noms, in which all 20 acting nominees were white. However, an early survey of this year's Oscar landscape suggests that the Film Academy may be getting with the program sooner rather than later.

The next set of Oscar noms, which will be announced on Jan. 24, 2017, will, in my assessment, almost certainly be the first in three years not branded with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. The first half of 2016 produced several films about, and in some cases made, by people of color that are poised to generate serious awards consideration. And there are quite a few more right around the corner.

The Birth of a Nation, a drama about the Nat Turner-led slave rebellion in the 1830s, has already laid down a marker. Written, directed and produced by Nate Parker, who also stars as Turner, the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where Fox Searchlight picked up its worldwide rights for a record $17.5 million. The savvy distributor now faces the task of opening the film on Oct. 7 amid an atmosphere of heightened racial tensions across the country, which could fuel interest in it — but it could also prove divisive and lead to controversy, which would be problematic come awards time. Right now, it seems likely that the pic will show up in multiple major categories when nominations are announced.

In contrast to the confrontational Nation, Jeff Nichols' Loving, which was unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival, tells a quietly inspirational tale. The writer/director's first fact-based movie, it recounts the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple who were at the center of the landmark Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage and paved the way for marriage equality for same-sex couples. Oscar talk for Ruth Negga, the Ethiopia-born actress who plays Mildred, started at the film's first screening. And Focus Features, which will open the film Nov. 4, is already laying the groundwork for a campaign. On June 12, the anniversary of the high court's decision, the company invited couples and families to share their stories on social media. 

There are also two films that, sight unseen, look to me as if they have even more awards potential, although they won't arrive in theaters until December, perhaps following a fall film fest premiere at Toronto or AFI Fest.

The first is Fences, Paramount's Denzel Washington-directed/Scott Rudin-produced adaptation of August Wilson's acclaimed Broadway play about a black family living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. It first hit the Great White Way in 1987 — winning the best drama Pulitzer and best play Tony — and was revived in 2010. Two-time Oscar winner Washington and two-time Oscar nominee Viola Davis return to the parts they played on stage in that revival, for which they each won a lead acting Tony.

And then there is Fox 2000's Hidden Figures. This film — an adaptation of a forthcoming book that recounts the true story of three black women mathematicians who worked at NASA between World War II and the Cold War and played an integral part in America's quest to win the space race — is slated for a 2017 release, but I've heard that the studio is so high on it that it has decided to move the pic into 2016, with an awards-qualifying limited release slated for Dec. 25. Directed by Ted Melfi, Hidden Figures stars an ensemble of black women — led by Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson, with Oscar winner Octavia Spencer and singer-actress Janelle Monáe in support — who are said to be extraordinary.

Some smaller films that have already received fest screenings also contain performances that merit attention, even if they are longer shots for awards recognition. In Sony Classics' Miles Ahead, which closed last fall's New York Film Festival and had a modest theatrical run that began April 1, Don Cheadle stars as jazz great Miles Davis. And Miramax and Roadside Attractions' Southside by You generated appreciative buzz for Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter as young Barack and Michelle Obama when it debuted in Park City. It will get an art house bid starting Aug. 26.

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American Pastoral, Ewan McGregor's adaptation of Philip Roth's novel, is largely about race-related conflict in the 1960s. While white performers have the most prominent parts in the Lionsgate film, which hits theaters in limited release on Oct. 21 and expands on Oct. 28, Uzo Aduba, the Emmy-winning actress better known as "Crazy Eyes" on Orange Is the New Black, has one killer scene that could thrust her into the best supporting actress race.

Although David Oyelowo failed to earn an Oscar nomination for 2014's Selma, he could make another run at a best actor nom thanks to his work in A United Kingdom, the Amma Asante-directed film about a controversial mixed-race couple (his wife is played by Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike) that will open the London Film Festival on Oct. 5 and which is still seeking U.S. distribution. Also screening at that fest (after opening nationwide in the U.S. on Sept. 23) will be Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe, a Disney film about a Ugandan chess prodigy played by best supporting actress Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave), who stars alongside Oyelowo.

Behind the camera, there are potential nominees, as well. Roger Ross Williams, the first black director ever to win an Oscar (for the 2010 documentary short Music by Prudence), brought to Sundance the feature doc Life, Animated, about a young autistic boy who learned to communicate by watching Disney animated movies, and Williams was awarded the best doc director prize. The film, which is being handled by The Orchard and received a limited release on July 1, seems a slam-dunk to make the best doc feature Oscar shortlist, at the very least.

Of course, the fact that there are worthy movies and work featuring diversity doesn't guarantee anything come nominations morning — in each of the past two years, there were high-caliber options, as well. Some argue, though not everyone agrees, that a more diverse membership, which the Academy is rushing to achieve, increases the odds of a more diverse set of nominees; it depends on whether or not you believe race factored into the results of the past two years. But what is inarguable is that a field with more diverse contenders increases the odds of a more diverse set of nominees.

This formidable crop of contenders did not come about as a direct response to the #OscarsSoWhite uproar — these films were already in motion before that took place. But this year's more diverse hopefuls — if they live up to their potential and Academy members give them a fair hearing, two big ifs — could prove very hard to ignore.

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