Hooray for #OscarsLessWhite — Now What About the Next Four Years?

Juan (played by Mahershala Ali) teaches Chiron (Jaden Piner) how to swim in 'Moonlight.' (David Bornfriend/Courtesy of A24)

At long last, the Academy Awards got younger, blacker and hipper. Not all the way down the line, mind you, but enough to mark a sea change in Oscar’s inclusiveness after some high-profile hashtag criticism. Most visibly, six of the 20 acting nominees are black. Even more remarkable, a small, seemingly niche independent film about gay black men in Florida (Moonlight) was nominated for Best Picture, as well as Director, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing and Original Score.

Three of the Documentary Feature finalists center on black protagonists and race (I Am Not Your Negro, O.J.: Made in America and 13th), which was anticipated given the attention each film generated. More surprising, though, is the domination of the Adapted Screenplay category by black stories (Fences, Hidden Figures and Moonlight).

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in 'Fences.'
Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in 'Fences.' (David Lee/Paramount Pictures)

We can’t count Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins, who shot his wonderful 2008 debut Medicine for Melancholy in San Francisco, as a local filmmaker anymore, so the Bay Area contingent consists of nominees for documentary shorts: Dan Kraus (Extremis, his second nomination in this category) and U.C. Berkeley journalism grad Daphne Matziaraki (4.1 Miles). Pixar wasn’t a serious contender this year for Best Animated Feature, but is nominated for Best Animated Short (Piper); the company also took some solace in the billion dollars that Finding Dory grossed around the world.

The voting took place in the wake of the general election, and it’s conceivable that the results made some Academy members more determined to support minority artists and marginalized stories. However, Meryl Streep’s gutsy speech at the Golden Globes ceremony took place after Oscar balloting closed, so neither her remarks nor a perverse desire to troll the Tweeter-in-Chief (who dismissed La Streep as “overrated”) played a part in her Best Actress nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins.

Ashton Sanders in Barry Jenkins' 'Moonlight.'
Ashton Sanders in Barry Jenkins' 'Moonlight.'
(David Bornfriend/Courtesy of A24)

Which is all to say it’s delving much too deeply into the tea leaves to describe this batch of Oscar nominations as fallout from Donald Trump’s selection to the Oval Office. However, we can certainly anticipate that a slew of acceptance speeches on Oscar night (Feb. 26) will call out his policies and name-check social agencies and arts nonprofits. (I’ll set the over/under at five.)

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A more interesting question is whether the kind of movies that get funded and made -- by the studios as well as by independent financiers -- will change over the next year or two. Studios focused on mainstream blockbusters and the international box office might feel more of an urge to sand the edges and dialogue. But streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, with their vast household penetration, are not only immune to political and box-office pressure but actively program for the left-leaning half of the country.

A still from 'Hidden Figures.'
A still from 'Hidden Figures.' (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

Back to the present, and as a counterbalance to Moonlight’s breakthrough, the overall domination of La La Land (14 nominations) could be viewed as a measure of the Academy’s residual conservatism. Movie musicals are willfully anachronistic throwbacks, of course, and escapism with a dollop of artistry is catnip to older Academy voters. La La Land embodies Hollywood’s primary mission: entertainment. And the film’s chutzpah -- that is, its very existence -- won admirers in every demographic.

The Old Guard’s presence is reflected in the Best Picture nomination for the bloody war picture Hacksaw Ridge and the Best Director nod to its, ahem, deeply flawed comeback kid, Mel Gibson. (Lead Andrew Garfield was also nominated for Best Actor.) I’ll be rooting against the movie on Oscar Night for one simple reason: I don’t want to see a picture of Trump and Gibson shaking hands at the White House.

Q.Logo.Break

See all the Academy Award nominees at oscars.org and watch the ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 26.

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