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Oscar nominations offer several long-awaited historical moments for underrepresented groups

Academy celebrates most ethnically, racially diverse slate of nods ever

For the entertainment industry, 2020 was nothing short of a disaster. Where studios held back their best Oscar contenders — like “The French Dispatch” and “Dune” — for the reopening of cinemas, streamable films took their place. But, this change might actually be the silver lining of an otherwise difficult year. Pushing blockbusters and big names aside, small-scale films and directorial debuts are given rare visibility among couch-bound movie-goers. 

For once, as the commotion of box office revenues and fierce award-campaigning was wound down by the pandemic, Oscar voters relied on their own good sense to determine what makes an award-worthy film. Announced last week, the 93rd Academy Award nominations did not disappoint, offering both predictable outcomes as well as groundbreaking surprises. 

Netflix’s “Mank” leads the way as the most nominated film of the year, boasting ten nominations. An homage to old Hollywood that blends nostalgia with self-critical contempt, David Fincher’s black-and-white period drama recalls the bygone era of filmmaking through Herman Mankiewicz, the screenwriter of “Citizen Kane.” “Mank” remains a traditional Oscar contender that willingly sits within the Hollywood vortex, amassing best picture, best director and acting nods for Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried, among other nominations. 

Six films each collected six nominations: “The Father,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Minari,” “Nomadland,” “Sound of Metal” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” The last film on the list, Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom drama about a group of anti-Vietnam war protesters ironically stands out as the more orthodox Oscar-bait, with its larger-than-life personas (portrayed by established A-listers), basis on historical events and a predominantly white, male cast. 

But, for the rest of the nominees, a conscientious effort made by the Academy to improve its prevailing image of entrenched racial inequality is clear, serving as a response to the social justice campaign #OscarsSoWhite. From the 20 all-male acting nominations just five years ago to the record-breaking nine nonwhite nominees this year, the Academy’s shift towards diversity — despite being long overdue — is warmly welcomed. 

Notably, Steven Yeun became the first Asian American actor nominated in the best actor category for his moving performance in “Minari,” a meditation on the struggles belying the American Dream. Riz Ahmed’s heartfelt evocation of loss and gradual recovery in “Sound of Metal” also received recognition, making him the first Muslim and British Pakistani actor to receive a best actor nomination. 

Simultaneously, the Academy has made significant strides toward gender parity. Chloé Zhao of “Nomadland” — a story about the displacement of the American workforce after the Great Recession — and Emerald Fennell of “Promising Young Woman” — a witty revenge comedy resonant with the #MeToo movement — triumphantly score nods in the category of best director. The two are joined in the category by directors David Fincher from “Mank,” Lee Isaac Chung from “Minari” and Thomas Vinterberg from “Another Round.” 

Together, Zhao and Fennell made history as the Academy nominated two female directors in one year for the first time. Deftly balancing authenticity and fiction in the narrative of “Nomadland,” Chinese-born Zhao also becomes the first woman of color to receive a best director nomination, as well as the first female to accrue four nominations in one award season, including best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay and best editing. 

Considering that the only woman who ever won Oscar hardware in the director category was Kathryn Bigelow on her 2010 film “The Hurt Locker,” a story about the Iraq War with a primarily male cast, Zhao’s and Fennell’s nominations send an empowering message: Women can make compelling films about women, independent of a male-dominant narrative. 

Other highlights include 73-year-old Youn Yuh-jung’s first-ever Oscar nomination (for best supporting actress) for her transformation into a charismatic South Korean grandma kindling her relationship with her American grandchildren in “Minari,” and the nomination of “Wolfwalkers” for best animated feature film, a beautifully drawn Celtic-inspired fantasy well worth a watch.

Nonetheless, awards season is not without its regrettable snubs, like Regina King’s directorial debut of “One Night in Miami,” which was under intense competition for the limited five placements in the best director category.

Another possible Oscar snub is the best director nomination that Sorkin sorely lacks as a best picture frontrunner for “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Instead, the highly anticipated nomination is given to the Danish film director Vinterberg for his directorial prowess in “Another Round,” a tragicomedy on the inevitable midlife crisis. 


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