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Change in motion at Oscars

Many of last year’s academy nominations prompted a backlash from a film-going world where ‘white’ is no longer the norm; in 2017 the focus has shifted and the calibre is just as high.

The eyes of the world were focused on the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Tuesday for what were widely expected to be the most diverse Oscar nominations to date.

The expectations followed on from the #oscarssowhite campaign which was a response to last year’s not-so-diverse nominations – among the big four acting categories, every actor and actress nominated was white.

The campaign resulted in celebrities and movie fans alike protesting the perceived racism of the academy both in person and through the use of the hashtag on social media.

Angela Basset, a 1994 nominee for her role as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It?, said: “When I see more inclusion, that’s when I can get more excited, when I see the work of what life looks like.”

Comedian Chris Rock, who had accepted last year’s hosting role before the nominations, and consequent controversy, were announced was more blunt. He used the awards ceremony to state: “Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood’s racist.”

It’s fair to say this year’s nominations came with some baggage, and academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs admitted as much at December’s Dubai International Film Festival.

“There’s always work to be done, and I would say that the discussion of diversity has been one throughout the United States and probably elsewhere in the world.”

Boone Issacs, who is probably in a better position than most to speak for the film industry, developed that theme: “For us in the film business, we have been working towards a more inclusive membership. Our governance comes from our membership so it’s important in order for diversity to trickle up that way that we include people of colour and gender, and that needs to be a worldwide initiative because there are great film makers around the world.”

As the nominations began to trickle in at 5.20pm UAE time, it quickly became clear that the campaign had not been in vain.

The very first category to be announced, that of Best Supporting Actor, one of last year’s all-white lists, featured not one, but two non-white actors – African-American Mahershala Ali for Moonlight and British-Indian Dev Patel for Lion.

Moonlight, indeed, offers something of a diversity jackpot, not only featuring a largely black cast, but also dealing with issues such as sexuality, child abuse and drugs. The movie had been hotly tipped as a multiple nominee. Lion, although less heavy on the issues, tells the story of an Indian man, adopted by an Australian couple at an early age, who sets off to find his birth family with nothing but Google Maps to assist him, and was another hotly-tipped movie before the nominations.

Best Actor was up next, and although the field was a little more white, featuring Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic), Ryan Gosling (La La Land), Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge) and Casey Affleck (Manchester By The Sea), it wasn’t a total whitewash, with Denzel Washington getting the nod for the family drama, Fences. In fairness, these nominations were in line with what most pundits had predicted, with the only real surprise being the omission of one more white face – Tom Hanks for Sully.

Of all the categories that should be capable of throwing up some diverse nominations, Best Foreign Language Film is surely the easy draw, but some regional interest here nonetheless, with Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian drama The Salesman among the nominees.

All the other nominations were from Europe and Australia, but this one is surely a given for the Maren Ade’s touchingly comic German entry, Toni Erdmann, regardless of what is up against it.

Back to the all-important big four acting categories, and there was a strong showing for black actresses on the Supporting Actresses cast list, Moonlight and Fences picking up further nominations for Naomie Harris and Viola Davis respectively.

Octavia Spencer’s inclusion for her role in the Nasa/sexism/racism drama Hidden Figures, meanwhile, meant this was the first category this year in which black actresses outnumbered their Caucasian counterparts, with Nicole Kidman (Lion) and Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) in the minority among the nominees.

The final big four category was Best Actress, and this followed in the footsteps of its Best Actor counterpart with the one non-Caucasian nominee – Irish-Ethiopian actress Ruth Negga, for her role in Loving, a family drama set, appropriately enough, in the era of the American Civil Rights Movement.

Like Best Actor, although there was only the one black nominee here, to be fair to the academy the nominations did go exactly as many critics had predicted. In fact, if there was one surprise among the list it would probably be Negga’s inclusion – the movie and its stars were not on too many lists ahead of time. In a worst-case scenario, perhaps the nomination could spark a new protest about tokenism, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The other big personality category is, of course, Best Director. Although the faces behind the camera are generally less well-known to the audience, there was a nod to diversity here too, with Barry Jenkins nominated for Moonlight, again widely predicted.

So what’s the verdict? With non-white nominations in every acting category, a majority in Best Supporting Actress, and a nomination for director too, it would certainly be fair to say that this years awards are #notnearlyaswhiteaslastyear.

Of course, a few nominations for shiny statues aren’t going to solve all the problems of diversity facing Hollywood and the US.

There’s still plenty of conversations to be had, but the longest journey starts with the smallest step. Congratulations to all this year’s nominees, black, white or brown, and in particular congratulations to (the admittedly white) Meryl Streep on becoming the most nominated performer in Oscars history with her 20th nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins.

The 2017 Oscars take place on February 26, and will screen live in the UAE on OSN Festival HD and OSN Play from 4.30am on February 27.

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