Oscars So White, Again? Actors of Color Could Face a Shutout

Illustration by Chris Gash

Denzel  Washington could score a nomination for 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.,' but, for the third time in four years, the acting category might come up short in terms of diversity.

Unlike some years past, this year's awards movies are packed with impressive performances by men and women of color. Think of Jason Mitchell in Mudbound, where the actor, who stunned critics with his incarnation of Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton, gets to tackle a different type of period piece as a veteran returning to rural Mississippi after World War II. Then there's his co-star Mary J. Blige as a black sharecropper's wife, a role that might have gotten her more attention if we weren't already so familiar with her work as a singer.

Add Octavia Spencer to the mix with The Shape of Water, a film that would stretch the limits of belief if it weren't for the grounded quality of her acting as a janitor who's best friends with Sally Hawkins, the film's heroine, and Hong Chau, an actress barely known until a ferocious buzz began to sweep Hollywood even before Downsizing (in which she plays a political refugee forced to earn a living as a cleaning lady) hit the fall festival circuit.

There are more familiar faces, too, such as Denzel Washington (a lawyer gone to seed in Roman J. Israel, Esq.) and Idris Elba, in the running with two films: as Kate Winslet's companion in the survival story The Mountain Between Us and as Jessica Chastain's pugnacious lawyer in the real-life tale Molly's Game.

There isn't an actor here who doesn't deserve some kind of nomination — John Boyega’s conflicted cop was a standout even among Detroit’s stellar cast — and it's a safe bet that several will be honored by the various critics' and indie filmmakers' groups. The Gotham Awards have already nominated Daniel Kaluuya as best actor for his encounter with well-heeled white racists in Get Out (though that film's best bid for recognition may be Jordan Peele's original screenplay).

But with all the cheerleading about how much Hollywood has turned a corner in terms of representation onscreen, we may be in for another year of #OscarsSoWhite when the Academy Award nominations are unveiled Jan. 23. True, Washington is an eternal Academy favorite who's been breaking Hollywood's race barriers since his first Oscar victory for 1989's Glory. As for the others, there are reasons to be pessimistic.

In his latest analysis of the race, THR's Scott Feinberg named Washington as the only nonwhite performer he deems a frontrunner (Blige was ranked as a "major threat" for supporting actress) within the four Oscar acting categories. In a perfect world, the nominations would be all about the work, but in the awards whirl, other factors also count.

In each case, there are different reasons for these actors' lack of traction. Spencer's low-key role lacks the big scenes that voters tend to favor; she's also fresh off a nom for last year's Hidden Figures and not too far away from her triumph for 2011's The Help — and the Academy rarely bestows multiple noms in a narrow time frame.

The Vietnamese-American Chau might be hurt by lukewarm feelings toward Downsizing, not to mention unease that her character, who speaks with a marked accent, is perceived by some as a stereotype.

Blige and Mitchell may have trouble gathering support if too few voters see their picture, always a problem with movies that are challenging — and even more so when it comes to persuading white audiences to see a story that's largely about black lives. As to Elba, he's a long shot, with fans likely to be split between two roles that, to many, don't compare with his stellar work on The Wire.

There's no Lupita Nyong'o this year, no Mahershala Ali — the actors who emerged as prohibitive frontrunners the moment their pictures were screened (12 Years a Slave and Moonlight, respectively), nor are there any performers with the kind of strong, personal backstories that might tip voters into their camp in the case of a tight race.

Despite everything the Academy has done to revamp its roster, adding hundreds of new voters to bolster its diverse and female contingents — which helped Moonlight win best picture this year — that may not be enough for a repeat of February's minority-friendly results.

Unless voters make some unexpected picks, Oscar may have another embarrassment, and the Academy may have to deal with a new hashtag: #OscarsSoWhiteYetAgain.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

comments powered by Disqus