"It is a tribute to a country where people are free to honor noteworthy achievements regardless of creed, race or color," actor Fay Bainter said as she announced Hattie McDaniel as Oscar's best supporting actress in 1940. Eighty-one years later, that statement finally may be true.
The 93rd Academy Awards will be presented Sunday night, and they're the show's most diverse in history. The #OscarsSoWhite movement that achieved prominence in response to exclusively white acting nominees — all 40 of 'em — in 2015 and 2016 has not entirely reconfigured the motion picture academy, which remains overwhelmingly white, male, straight and older. But, in attempting to address its homogeneity, the academy has widened its membership, which has paid off in slates of nominees that look a bit more like the world does.
This year alone, the Oscars have the first woman of color nominated for the directing prize, "Nomadland"'s Chloé Zhao (with Emerald Fennell contending for "Promising Young Woman," it's the only time the notoriously clubby directors' branch of the academy has cited more than one woman).
All four performance winners could be people of color, with actor Chadwick Boseman ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom") and supporting actor Daniel Kaluuya ("Judas and the Black Messiah") virtual locks.
The three producers of "Judas" are the first all-Black team up for best picture. Paul Raci, whose first language was American Sign Language and who is the child of deaf parents, is a supporting actor contender for "Sound of Metal."
The awards will see their first wheelchair user accept a trophy if director Jim LeBrecht's "Crip Camp" takes the documentary prize. Three of five best actor nominees are people of color (Riz Ahmed, Boseman and Steven Yeun) and another, Anthony Hopkins, could become the oldest-ever winner.
None of this could have been envisioned by "Gone With the Wind" winner Hattie McDaniel, who walked to the podium from her segregated table and humbly promised to be a credit to her race. But it seems likely she'd have hoped it wouldn't take 24 more years for a Black actor to win an Oscar. That was Sidney Poitier who, after accepting his best actor prize for "Lilies of the Field" in 1964, told the New York Times, "I don't believe my Oscar will be a sort of magic wand that will wipe away the restrictions on job opportunities for Negro actors."
He was right. It would be almost two decades before another Black actor won — Louis Gossett Jr.'s supporting actor prize for "An Officer and a Gentleman" in 1983. Although several Black men have won lead and supporting Oscars since then and a couple of women have won the supporting actress honor, only Halle Berry has taken home the best actress trophy.
As Viola Davis, a best actress contender for "Ma Rainey," said earlier this year, "If me going back to the Oscars four times in 2021 makes me the most nominated Black actress in history, that's a testament to the sheer lack of material there has been out there for artists of color."
Oscar's record in honoring Black artists is poor behind the scenes, too (with the exception of the music categories, where Prince's 1985 "Purple Rain" win puts him in the company of Isaac Hayes, Stevie Wonder, Irene Cara and others). But it's even worse for Latinos, who've won just a handful of Oscars, Native Americans, who've won once, Asians, openly gay people, trans people and virtually every underrepresented group you can name.
The problem is twofold. As Poitier indicated, the key reason not many people of color have won Oscars is because they haven't had the opportunity to be hired on the sort of movies that win the award. There never was a shortage of talented performers of color but actors like Ethel Waters, Mako, Edward James Olmos, Chief Dan George and Katy Jurado rarely had the chance to show what they could have done in Hollywood.
There are signs that is changing. When Frances McDormand accepted her best actress prize for "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" in 2018 and championed "inclusion riders," it sent viewers to Google to figure out what she was talking about and led many filmmakers to hop on board the idea of contractually required diversity on film sets.
In her Golden Globe speech the following year, Regina King announced all of her productions would hire 50% women and challenged others to follow suit.
McDormand, who said she only learned about inclusion riders days before her speech, credited "Moonlight" with opening things up. It was so excellent, she argued, that it practically forced voters to honor it.
The drama about the youth and young adulthood of a Black man in Miami brought many artists along with it. Director Barry Jenkins was nominated again for his follow-up, "If Beale Street Could Talk," which won King her Oscar. Production designer Hannah Beachler would win for "Black Panther" the following year and Mahershala Ali's Oscar that night was just his first. Denzel Washington's win for "Training Day" in 2002 similarly opened doors.
That's how we got to this year's acting contenders, nine of whom are people of color. It all seems to be happening fast, driven perhaps by voters' awareness that #OscarsSoWhite was embarrassing and correct. But as a sign of how slowly the Academy moves, its membership passed new rules last year for nominees, mandating diversity. The rules, directed at requiring the participation of underrepresented groups, are fairly easy to satisfy but, even at that, they don't take effect until 2024. And, while the number of people of color who vote on the Oscars has doubled since 2015, it's still just 16%, with 32% female.
None of the changes can alter Oscar's — but more importantly, Hollywood's — racist history. One of the finest films of the past four decades, "Do the Right Thing," still doesn't have an award. Neither does James Earl Jones or the late Cicely Tyson, both of whom are giants of acting but neither of whom managed more than a handful of great film roles. Rita Moreno has had a long career, before and after winning her Oscar for "West Side Story," but almost none of it has been in movies. And those are the names we recognize. Who knows how many Latino directors or American Indian composers never had a shot at any movie gigs, much less the kind that win awards?
The heat has been off the Academy Awards of late, partly because of this year's diversity (although let's not forget Cynthia Erivo was the only person of color nominated for acting last year) and partly because Oscar can point to the Golden Globes membership, which contains zero Black people, as being a whole lot worse.
But the hope is that this year's field is a step toward a more inclusive future — one where we'll be congratulating Lena Waithe, Jodie Turner-Smith, Lulu Wang, Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. and Ryan Coogler on their trips to the podium, not wondering what ever happened to them.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
93rd Academy Awards
Pre-show: 5:30 p.m.
Main event: 7 p.m. Sunday, KSTP, Ch. 5.