Movie News & Reviews

Oscar not so white? With many worthy contenders, the Academy Awards are bound to be more diverse

So many movies starring black performers should be strong contenders for Oscar’s best picture or acting categories, including (from left) “Moonlight,” “Loving,” “The Birth of a Nation,” “Queen of Katwe” and “Fences.”
So many movies starring black performers should be strong contenders for Oscar’s best picture or acting categories, including (from left) “Moonlight,” “Loving,” “The Birth of a Nation,” “Queen of Katwe” and “Fences.”

Oscar doesn’t have a racial quota.

In considering actors, directors and others for the competition, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are — in theory, anyway — expected to base their votes on artistic excellence. Race shouldn’t matter.

Except when it does.

It’s entirely possible that during this season’s nominating process academy members will be thinking a lot about race, if only because last year they took so much heat for failing to nominate any African-Americans (or for that matter, Asian-Americans or Hispanics) in the acting categories.

Even more perplexing, it was the second year in a row in which no minority faces were nominated, leading to threats of Oscar ceremony boycotts and the emergence of the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.

And this year, there are too many award-worthy efforts from minority performers and filmmakers to ignore.

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In fact, the upcoming Academy Awards race is poised to feature more minority nominees than ever before in Hollywood history. It has been a terrific year for minority performers and for films dealing with America’s original sin: racial injustice.

And the contenders will be piling up one after another in the coming weeks:

“Moonlight”

Barry Jenkins’ drama (opening in Kansas City on Friday) is that rarity — a genuine black art film in the tradition of “Killer of Sheep” and “Daughters of the Dust.” Though set in contemporary American black culture, “Moonlight” feels almost like a Dickens novel, or “Boyhood,” following a young African-American from childhood, through high school and on to young adulthood.

Three talented young actors — Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes — portray our protagonist, Chiron, as he deals with an addict mother (Naomie Harris), undergoes the torments of being an outsider (he realizes he’s gay) and eventually becomes a near-silent drug slinger in a state of profound loneliness.

If there were a group Oscar for several actors playing the same character, the three Chirons would be shoo-ins. As things stand the most likely nominee is Mahershala Ali in the supporting actor category for his turn as the neighborhood drug lord Juan, who takes the timid Chiron under his wing. (And let’s not forget KCK native Janelle Monae, who makes a smooth turn from pop stardom to acting in her portrayal of Juan’s nurturing girlfriend.)

It’s almost certain that writer/director Jenkins, an African-American, will pull down nominations for both of those categories.

“Loving”

“Loving” (Nov. 23) is the best film I’ve seen so far in 2016. And I don’t expect it to be topped.

Jeff Nichols, the cinematic poet laureate of poor rural lives (“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” “Mud”), tells the fact-based story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who in 1958 were convicted for violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws and years later saw their case spawn a monumental decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The film is both fiercely intimate — one of the best love stories ever — and historically significant.

But it’s not a courtroom drama. Instead it’s a richly detailed study of two simple people who, wanting only to live together in peace, find themselves on the spearhead of a major civil rights issue.

Newcomer Ruth Negga (perhaps you caught her very different performance as a female assassin on cable’s “Preacher”) seems guaranteed a best actress nomination for her role as the dignified and transcendent Mildred Loving; Aussie Joel Edgerton is assured of a best actor nomination for his work as the monosyllabic Richard.

For that matter, Nichols, who’s Caucasian, is a prime contender for directing and screenwriting honors.

I suppose you could classify “Loving” as a “black film.” In truth, it’s everybody’s film.

“Collateral Beauty”

Will Smith gave what may be his best performance in 2015’s “Concussion” — and didn’t get a nomination.

Perhaps Oscar will make up for lost time by honoring his work in this effort (opening Dec. 16) about a depressed advertising executive who begins writing letters to concepts like love, time and death, and then finds himself encountering those concepts embodied in strangers who reshape his life.

(Bonus points for the year’s deepest supporting cast: Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Naomie Harris, Helen Mirren, Michael Pena.)

“Fences”

Based on August Wilson’s 1983 Pulitzer- and Tony-winning stage hit, “Fences” (Dec. 25) has Oscar potential written all over it.

Denzel Washington, reprising his role in the recent Broadway revival, now stars and directs this tale of a one-time professional baseball player who, in the mid-1950s, works as a trash collector. There’s no shortage of big themes: race, fatherhood and the struggle to come to terms with one’s life.

Directing and acting nods to Washington? We’ll see. And co-star Viola Davis maybe due for her third Oscar nomination.

“Hidden Figures”

In the pre-computer era, some African-American women use slide rules and their own mathematical genius to help NASA put Americans in outer space.

Theodore Melfi’s film — it generated lots of Oscar buzz at the Toronto International Film Festival this fall and will open locally Jan. 6 — features performances by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer (an Academy Award winner for “The Help”) and, again, Janelle Monae.

This batch comes on top of a spate of such films that hit theaters earlier in the year:

“The Birth of a Nation”

After wowing Sundance Film Festival audiences in January and being picked up by Fox Searchlight for a Sundance record $17.5 million, Nate Parker’s re-creation of Nat Turner’s 1831 Virginia slave rebellion was considered by many to be the movie to beat this awards season.

And then word started spreading of writer/director/star Parker’s trial and subsequent acquittal on a 1999 rape charge while a student at Pennsylvania State University.

Instead of becoming a celebrated cinematic event, “Birth” has struggled to break even for Fox Searchlight, with many filmgoers making a conscious decision not to patronize the movie because of its creator’s sexual/criminal history.

The bloom is off the “Birth of a Nation” rose. But does it still have a chance with Oscar?

Well, if the rape scandal had never become part of the discussion, it’s likely that Parker would be nominated for both his writing and direction. Even an acting nomination wouldn’t be out of the question.

Will Oscar voters be able to look past the controversy and see the film for the remarkable statement it is?

Perhaps. I never thought they’d give an Academy Award to a child molester, but in 2003 Roman Polanski was named best director for “The Pianist.” Polanski couldn’t attend the ceremony, being a fugitive from justice since 1978 when he fled the country rather than face California charges of having sex with an underage girl.

But then again, Polanski’s legal issues were by that time decades-old news. Another difference that might, sadly, be at work here: Polanski is white.

“Southside With You”

Richard Tanne’s film (on home video in December) is about the first date in 1989 of young attorneys Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. It could have been embarrassing. Instead it is transcendent.

But despite some glowing reviews, the film did next to no business, and it’s doubtful that leads Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers will be recognized for their acting. Still, filmmaker Tanne might snag a nom for his screenplay, which was funny, romantic and inspiring without bogging down in politics or hagiography.

“Miles Ahead”

Kansas City native Don Cheadle excelled as actor, director and writer of this cinematic reverie (on video now) about jazz great Miles Davis during his late ’70s slump. The film’s twisty narrative even emulated the jazz improvisations for which Davis was famous.

Problem is, jazz isn’t a hugely popular musical form, and the film did only so-so biz. Will the Oscar voters remember enough about its virtues to consider Cheadle’s accomplishment?

“Queen of Katwe”

This sleeper hit (due on video in January), about Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, is a deeply satisfying family film, one made even more satisfying by the tender performance by Lupita Nyong’o as our heroine’s mother.

Oscar voters should consider Nyong’o for a supporting actress nomination (she won in that category in 2014 for “12 Years a Slave”).

For that matter, Mira Nair (an Indian-American) has an outside shot at a directing nom.

Read more of Robert W. Butler’s film coverage at ButlerscCnemaScene.com.

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