2016 Oscar nominations will be announced early tomorrow morning, Thursday at 5:38am PT. Ahead of that, I thought I’d take a brief look at what black actors, directors and films just might be in contention. I say I’ll be brief because, well, as I’m sure you already realize, pickings are slim this year, as they have been almost every year since the first Academy Awards event.
Looking over the predictions on several other sites (primarily mainstream film sites), you’d gather that there really shouldn’t be any surprises at this point, because they all look almost exactly the same, listing the same films, actors, directors, etc. But that’s expected at this stage of game I suppose. Although there were a tiny few bold picks here and there. But I think, less than a day before the official announcement tomorrow, we can all name most of the favorites.
But in terms of black nominees, here are the names and titles that I think could contend in the major categories:
– Best Picture: Since the Academy upped the number of nominees to 10 in this specific category, this may be one category in which "anything black" may get a nod; and 3 films immediately come to mind as possible contenders: "Straight Outta Compton," "Creed" and "Beasts of No Nation." All 3 received much critical attention, and the first 2 are blockbusters. "Beasts" is a *smaller* so-called arthouse film anyway, so it wasn’t expected to be a commercial hit. Also, Netflix released it both in theaters and on its streaming platform on the same day, so its theatrical box office potential was cut by the fact that, I’d guess, most of us probably watched it at home.
– Best Director: The directors of 2 of the above films have the best shot – F. Gary Gray for "Straight Outta Compton" and Ryan Coogler for "Creed." Neither is a favorite to make the list of 5 nominees in this category, but, in a year in which diversity seems to have been a kind of industry rallying cry, we might be surprised by a selection in a category here and there.
– Best Actor: This is a tough category because there are too many strong nominees here, with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Fassbender, Eddie Redmayne, Bryan Cranston and others all impressing with solid individual performances. The list goes on and is strong. In terms of black actors who might contend, the most obvious here are Will Smith ("Concussion"), Michael B. Jordan ("Creed"), Samuel L. Jackson ("Hateful Eight") and Abraham Attah (Beasts of No Nation"). At first glance, Attah might be considered the least likely. But when you consider that Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated for Best Actress for "Beasts of the Southern Wild" in 2013 (both child actors in critically-acclaimed films), Attah definitely has a shot.
– Best Actress: An even tougher category in part because there are much fewer black actresses (compared to black actors) who starred in any Oscar-caliber films released in 2015. The knee-jerk reaction is usually to criticize the Academy for its lack of diversity in terms of nominees, but it all starts with the work. People of color have to first be cast in films that can contend for the highest honors in all of the industry. As Viola Davis said during her Emmy Awards acceptance speech last year, "The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity." The same goes for the other gender. All that said, the only black actresses with any real shot at nominations are Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez for thier performances in "Tangerine." Long shots for either of them, although, as shared on this blog in October, Magnolia Pictures and the Duplass Brothers teamed up to launch an Oscar campaign for both "Tangerine" stars, for what has been the first awards season push for transgender actresses by a movie distributor in Hollywood history. Rodriguez is being pushed as Lead Actress, and Taylor as Supporting. Mark Duplass said: "Jay and I are new to the Academy, so we’re just figuring this whole thing out. One thing that has become apparent to us as we look at this stuff, it seems that the TV Academy has embraced what’s happening in the trans movement with ‘Transparent’ and ‘Orange is the New Black.’ We feel that the film Academy is a little behind on that front […] This is the time for it. We’re in the middle of a civil rights movement.”
– Best Supporting Actor: This might be the only category in which a nomination of a black actor/actress in any of the acting categories, is most likely – and that will be Idris Elba for his performance in "Beasts of No Nation." Although Jason Mitchell’s name has popped up on a few "expert" lists here and there for his performance in "Straight Outta Compton." So he might make the cut as well. It’s just that Elba is the one name that’s on just about every list I’ve seen in this specific category.
– Best Supporting Actress: As noted in Best Actress category, Mya Taylor may be a contender for "Tangerine" if Magnolia Pictures’ campaigning has had any effect on voters; and also, there’s that diversity thing again, as the Academy may see this as an opportunity to make a statement that will resound with the transgender community. As Mark Duplass said above, "One thing that has become apparent to us as we look at this stuff, it seems that the TV Academy has embraced what’s happening in the trans movement with ‘Transparent’ and ‘Orange is the New Black.’ We feel that the film Academy is a little behind on that front […] This is the time for it." Also, a very long shot might be Gugu Mbatha-Raw for "Concussion." But there’s really been zero buzz around her for her work in the film. And Tessa Thompson in "Creed" – although there’s really been no push or buzz around her either.
– Best Original Screenplay: "Straight Outta Compton" is in the top 5 of a number of "expert" lists that I read, so it looks like a strong contender here. And also "Creed" could make the top 5. But of the two, "Compton" seems most like a sure-thing. Although what may not be widely-known is that the screenplay was written by 2 white writers: Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff. So if it is nominated, it’ll certainly be good for the film itself, but, ultimately, the writers will get the glory, and the award in the end, should it actually be nominated and go on to win in this category.
– Best Adapted Screenplay: "Beasts of No Nation" is really the only contender here. It’s based on Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of the same name; although Cary Joji Fukunaga, the director, adapted the novel to screenplay, so if it is nominated in this category, Fukunaga’s name will be on the plaque, not Iweala’s.
That’s it for the major categories. Scanning what’s left, there might be black nominees in categories like Best Documentary (Stanley Nelson’s "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" for example; although it’s not showing up on any list of contenders that I’ve seen, probably because, in part, there hasn’t been an Oscar push for it); and maybe Best Song (I know "Creed" and even "Ch-Raq" have original songs that were submitted for consideration). Otherwise, there really isn’t much else for *us* to get excited about. But again, I keep returning to the diversity thing because it’s been much in conversation and has been of influence on the industry over the last year. So, really, a surprise or two shouldn’t be unexpected when the nominees are announced tomorrow morning.
The academy has very publicly been criticized for its overwhelmingly white, male membership, as well as the general *whiteness* of the Oscars (in terms of nominees, notably) – something that’s been very well documented, and that Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs seems intent on doing something about. "Our eyes are open," Boone Isaacs said late last year in reference to that very matter.
And maybe bringing in Reggie Hudlin to co-produce the next Oscars and Chris Rock to host, is just one move in that direction.
The last time an Oscars event was produced by an African American and also hosted by an African American was at the 68th Academy Awards ceremony in 1996, which was produced by Quincy Jones and hosted by Whoopi Goldberg – her second time as host.
In the 84 years of Academy Awards celebrations, only 5 African Americans have hosted the ceremony – Sammy Davis Jr in 1972 (although it was a team effort – he co-hosted with Helen Hayes, Alan King, and Jack Lemmon; he would co-host again in 1974, in another team effort), Diana Ross in 1974 (again, also a team effort, co-hosting with John Huston, Burt Reynolds and David Niven), Richard Pryor in 1977 (another team effort with Warren Beatty, Ellen Burstyn and Jane Fonda; he would co-host again in 1983, in another team effort), Whoopi Goldberg in 1994 (and again in 1996, 1999 and 2002, making her the record-holder in terms of African Americans who have hosted the most, and really THE first solo black host of the show), and finally Chris Rock in 2004.
It’s also worth noting that having a black host for the Oscars has proven to be a ratings coup for the show (especially when paired with nominated black performers/films). For example, last year’s Academy Awards show saw a 16% decline in viewership, the lowest rating for total viewer count in 6 years. You’ll recall my pre-Oscars 2015 piece on the correlation that Nielsen found between the number of black Oscar nominees, hosts, and viewership. Of the last 10 years, the best year for Oscar viewership and ratings was (coincidentally) when Chris Rock hosted the show, and several black actors were nominated in major categories, including Don Cheadle, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman and Sophie Okonedo, and the film "Ray" was nominated for best picture. Roughly 5.3 million black viewers tuned in, according to Nielsen, helping to lift the show’s draw to over 42 million viewers – a rarity in this millennium.
And to restate why a drop in viewership is a concern for the Academy, the Oscar telecast generates by far the biggest part of the Academy’s $151.5 million annual revenue, and maintaining high ratings is essential to its financial success. Academy leaders are also aware that a failure to attract a diverse audience risks making the awards less relevant to new generations of viewers.
Like a lot of things, it comes down to dollars and cents. There is money to made in diversity, as reports from the UCLA Ralph Bunche Center, the WGA, and others recently have all shown (and the unprecedented number of TV pilots ordered by networks last year, with black actors in starring, lead and supporting roles). "All black everything" (almost) seems to be the way to go currently, for Hollywood… that is, until it’s not.
Once the nominees are announced tomorrow morning, we’ll have more to talk about.
The 88th Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 28, 2016, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live by ABC at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT.