Arts·Point of View

All it took was the end of the world for the Oscars to finally offer their most diverse lineup ever

We're all burnt out from pandemic awards shows, but we should find the will to care about this one.

We're all burnt out from pandemic awards shows, but we should find the will to care about this one

Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. (Netflix)

Months (years?) into the longest, strangest awards season ever, the Oscar nominations were finally bestowed upon us this morning. For someone who has enthusiastically gotten up every year since I was six years old to watch the announcement, I felt weirdly blasé waking up to tune in; I even considered committing personal blasphemy and just sleeping through them. Not helping the matter were the equally punishing decisions for the nominations to come out the Monday after the clocks went forward, and that the Academy decided that Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra Jonas were suitable choices to read the nominees (this is not the People's Choice Awards!). But as the proceedings kicked off with Chopra Jones saying "Maria Bakalova for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," I felt a very unfamiliar feeling: excitement.

Exactly a year and two days into pandemic life, it's easy for anyone to feel completely numb and/or jaded to pretty much anything, certainly awards shows. While once upon a time the idea of seeing how an awards show might be pulled off amidst all this felt like a novelty (see: the Emmy Awards), they have grown into a reminder and a representation of the Zoom hellscapes we all exist in every day (see: the Golden Globes). Award shows are supposed to, in some part, offer escapism, but there's been nothing escapist about them as of late. And let's face it, they've been struggling with their relevance long before COVID-19. Every year, another round of tone-deaf nominees and winners spark outrage, leading to the bodies that vote for them to promise change. 

Oscar nominee Youn Yuh-jung in Minari. (A24)

Here's the thing, though. The Oscars have actually been making inroads. Lest we forget that last year Parasite swept the proceedings, becoming the first foreign language film to ever win best picture. And this year's nominees only seem to build on that. In fact, they are by far the most inclusive of all the things we've been wishing they'd be: diverse stories, female filmmakers, filmmakers of colour, actors of colour, even comedies!

For the first time in the entire 93 years of the Academy Awards, two women — Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman and Chloé Zhao for Nomadland — were nominated for best director, bringing the grand total to ... an astounding seven. And Zhao, by far the frontrunner, was nominated three other times: for producing, editing and screenwriting. She's also the first woman of colour to ever be nominated for best director.

Various more records came in the acting categories, where nine people of colour — Chadwick Boseman, Riz Ahmed, Steven Yeun, Andra Day, Viola Davis, Youn Yuh-jung, Daniel Kaluuya, Leslie Odom, Jr. and LaKeith Stanfield — made up nearly half of the nominees. And of the 11 white nominees, only four were American.

This marks the first time in 50 years where two Black women — Day and Davis — were nominated for best actress. In 1973, Cicely Tyson and Diana Ross both were, oddly enough with Ross playing Billie Holiday, just as Day does in her nominated work from The United States Vs. Billie Holiday. Except this time, both Day and Davis were directed by Black filmmakers, and both of them are playing LGBTQ roles, which is truly quite something. If one of them takes the crown, the winner would (disturbingly) become only the second Black winner in the category after Halle Berry.

Maria Bakalova in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. (Amazon)

Also very notable are the nominations of Ahmed, Yeun and Yuh-jung. Ahmed became the first Muslim actor ever nominated his category, Yeun the first Asian-American and Yuh-jung the first Korean. While Parasite indeed won last year, all of its actors were snubbed, as were Awkwafina and Zhao Shu-zhen for their incredible work in The Farewell. So for Ahmed, Yeun and Yuh-jung (although sadly not young Alan Kim, who was so great in Minari) to all get in is a huge step in the right direction for recognition of actors of Asian descent. 

And then there's the Maria Bakalova of it all. The 24-year-old Bulgarian actress became an extremely rare example of a comedic performance getting nominated, one of two for the Borat sequel (it also got a screenplay nod). She's up again Yuh-jung, Olivia Colman, Amanda Seyfried and Glenn Close, who now is fourth to only Meryl Streep, Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis in terms of total Oscar nominations for actresses (and first for actresses who have never won). Should Bakalova join the ranks of Colman, Streep, Cher and Jodie Foster in beating Ms. Close (which she genuinely could), she'll also become the first woman to ever win an Oscar for, well, basically 1,000 things including swallowing a cake decoration, menstruating at a debutante ball and trying to seduce Rudy Giuliani. 

2020, for all its endless shortcomings, was an extraordinary year for films across the board. Even as cinemas were shuttered, movies found a way to get to us. And that's another thing: since when do the Oscar nominations come out and pretty every nominated film is accessible to anyone, anywhere? Don't get me wrong, I cannot wait for movie theatres to be open everywhere. But there's a slight silver lining that people outside major urban centres can immediately find their way to Minari, Nomadland, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Promising Young Woman and then cheer them on come Oscar night, whatever Oscar night ends up looking like.

Frances McDormand and Chloé Zhao on the set of Nomadland. (Searchlight Pictures)

There was a time early in the pandemic when it seemed highly possible the Oscars would end up being called off altogether. But they weren't, and now here we are. And it would be a shame to just ignore them, like most of us did the Golden Globes. Because for all their missteps, and times in the past where we've thought it might be time to give up on them, the Oscars still mean something. To deny Chloé Zhao, Maria Bakalova, Steven Yeun or the late, great Chadwick Boseman their moment by making these the Oscars we all forgot existed would be downright disrespectful.

And who knows, maybe they'll pull something off impressively not on Zoom (the Grammys sure just did last night). After all, the show is now being produced by Steven Soderbergh and they'll be mostly held at LA's Union Station. If the man can direct Contagion, the eerily predictive 2011 pandemic movie so many of you questionably watched at the beginning of quarantine, surely he can find a way to turn a train station into an exciting pandemic Oscars by April 25th. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Knegt (he/him) is a writer, producer and host for CBC Arts. He writes the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and hosts and produces the talk series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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