After years marked by the hashtags #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoMale, industry observers are crowing over this year’s topline numbers. For the first time in Academy Awards history, almost half the nominees in the acting categories (9 of 20) are performers of color, and more women (70) are nominated throughout the 23 categories than in any previous year.
Less noted is that this expanded diversity walks hand-in-hand with social consciousness in the year’s most nominated films. There are the stories of FBI malfeasance in the martyrdom of Black Panther Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah, and the tragic downfall of singer “Lady Day” in The United States vs. Billie Holliday; portraits of ’60s social activists in One Night in Miami and The Trial of the Chicago 7. Also stories of women standing up to systemic abuse — from a racist music industry in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and from a misogynist culture in Promising Young Woman.
Stories of social marginalizing can be found in Nomadland, about a community of economically dislocated drifters, Minari, the chronicle of an immigrant Korean family that moves to Arkansas, and Sound of Metal, about a heavy metal drummer who finds himself in unfamiliar territory when he suffers severe hearing loss.
That’s a potent litany of social issues, arriving at a time of social turmoil in the world outside cineplexes. A litany that might well have been diffused had COVID-19 not shattered film studio release schedules and altered the awards landscape.
Prior to the pandemic, the films regarded as likely Oscar contenders included more anodyne offerings: a new version of the musical West Side Story (script by Pulitzer winner Tony Kushner, directed by Oscar winner Steven Spielberg), the star-studded costume epic The Last Duel from Gladiator director Ridley Scott, and The French Dispatch, the latest weirdness from Wes Anderson, director of The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Given the talent and clout behind them, all would have been heavily promoted by their studios, and might well have shoved aside some of the more socially conscious titles that have dominated this awards season.