Oscars 2016 is wrapped, and it was a night of surprises (both thrilling and disappointing). Of course, the topic of the night, which host Chris Rock hammered into oblivion, was the lack of diversity shown in the acting categories. In the red carpet interviews before the show, most of the black actors were asked about the issue of diversity. It’s a hot button topic.
And we’re probably going to be talking about it again next year.
Is it too early to start predicting the next Oscars? Not really. We already know what the slate for this year’s movies will be. Many of them have already wrapped filming. We know the films by the most likely suspects, and we can take some educated guesses. One guess that’s pretty solid is that we won’t see a lot of diversity at the awards simply because there won’t be that many movies with non-white lead casts.
There are a number of movies already getting some light Oscar buzz. I’m sure you haven’t heard about them yet, but they are anticipated movies with big name directors, writers, and actors. They are also pretty much all white: Sully, The Founder (Michael Keaton taking another shot at Oscar gold), War Machine, The Light Between Oceans, The BFG, Manchester By the Sea, Nocturnal Animals, La La Land, Passengers, Florence Foster Jenkins (maybe another win for Meryl), and Story of Your Life (although it has a potentially strong African-American role played by Forest Whitaker, it’s most likely not gonna set him up for another Oscar).
There are two films that are getting the most Oscar buzz at this early stage. Martin Scorsese, that giant of film, has Silence coming out this year and it’s already an Oscar favorite. It stars Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield as Jesuit Portuguese Catholic priests looking for their mentor (Liam Neeson) in Japan and spreading the teachings of Christianity along the way, despite being met with violent opposition.
Although the novel the movie is based on was written by a Japanese man (who was Catholic), the lead stars of the film are all white. The “ancillary” cast of Japanese actors are mostly in roles without any character names (“Interpreter”, “Christian Villager”, “Buddhist Priest”, etc.). There’s a good chance this movie will put up a lot of Oscar candidates in multiple categories, but none of them will be Asian.
Still shot from Silence
Oscar winner Ang Lee will have a chance to add to his collection with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a dramedy about an infantryman who recounts the final hours before he and his fellow soldiers return to Iraq. It stars Vin Diesel, taking a shot at a more serious role. Vin identifies as a person of color. His (white) mom says that through his bio-dad he has “connections to many different cultures” so…I guess we can claim him if he gets nominated? But that nomination might prove tricky; we’ve yet to see if Mr. Diesel can act at the Oscar level.
But, besides Ang Lee (who has been the lone standard bearer for Asians at the Oscars for a while) and a movie that takes place in Japan but won’t feature any prominent Japanese roles, East Asians won’t have much visibility in Oscar type films this year.
But we might have a shot at an Indian actor nom. Lion stars our Slumdog Millionaire hero Dev Patel. The movie is produced by The Weinstein Co., one of the most powerful forces in Hollywood, and also stars Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara. If Dev can break out and own this movie, it might get him some attention.
How about our Hispanic brothers and sisters? Alejandro Iñárritu has represented Mexico very well for the past couple of years but he doesn’t have a film out this year. Benicio del Toro is in Weightless (another early Oscar fave), a film chock full of white Oscar winners and nominees (Fassbender, Bale, Mara, Blanchett, Portman). But it’s not clear that his role will have any punch in an ensemble cast that noteworthy. Javier Bardem may have an outside chance at a nom with The Last Face but it’s certainly not drumming up Oscar buzz at the moment.
Oscar Isaac (yes, he’s Guatemalan! His real last name is Hernandez) stars with Christian Bale in The Promise which is a historical love triangle written and directed by an Oscar winner. All those factors could add up to Oscar bait, and perhaps the best chance we have of a Latino nomination in the acting category (Oscar is a fantastic actor who is seemingly in everything these days and he should be).
That leaves us with the African American possible nominees. Here, things get a little controversial. The early buzz is going to The Birth of a Nation, a film about the Nat Turner slave uprising. At the Sundance Film Festival, it won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, and Fox Searchlight bought worldwide rights to the film for $17.5 million (a Sundance record).
But Sundance success doesn’t often lead to Oscar Gold, and the topic of race both helps and hurts this movie. It is at times a violent film and, as a slave uprising, much of that violence is black people killing white people in some war-movie type scenes. Add to that the very purposeful link to the 1915 KKK propaganda film that has the same title, and this is a heavily political film in a heavily political time. Politics aside, there may also be some execution issues. While the movie is enjoying critical acclaim (95% positive on Rotten Tomatoes), even favorable reviews describe it as sometimes “heavy-handed” and “uneven”. Still, with all the hype (both commercial and critical) if this film doesn’t at the very least get a Best Picture nom, things will get ugly.
The 2016 Birth of a Nation will be a hot topic this year.
One wild card is Richard Pryor: Is it Something I Said?: a Richard Pryor biopic directed by Lee Daniels (executive producer of Empire and director of Precious and The Butler). It stars Oprah, Eddie Murphy, Kate Hudson, and….Mike Epps?!? Yes, Epps is taking on the heavy responsibility of bringing Richard Pryor to life in film. Mike is a capable comedian and I don’t want to doubt him, but he’ll have a lot to prove here. If he can do it, he would have earned an Oscar nom.
But it might be more likely that Eddie Murphy outshines him as Richard’s intense father, or even Oprah as Richard’s beloved grandmother. Regardless, Richard Pryor’s off color comedy and his history of abusing everything could make this another controversial film that might be too divisive.
Personally, I’m favoring two films at the other end of the spectrum: Hidden Figures and Queen of Katwe. Hidden Figures tells the true story of a group of African-American women who provided NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program’s first successful space missions. It portrays minority women owning math and putting people into space. And it’s true. It happened, but it’s in nobody’s history books. It’s a story I’m dying to see.
Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer are already slated to star, and other big names have been rumored like Viola Davis and, of course, Oprah. The script (adapted from the book of the same name) was written by a woman, and the film has a female cinematographer. It would be an amazing Oscar pick for so many reasons (assuming it’s actually good, which remains to be seen).
But there’s a problem: it’s slated for a January 2017 wide release and hasn’t even finished casting yet, let alone started filming. While the wide release can be solved with a limited release in late December (just like American Sniper pulled off), if there are any production snafus this might get pushed back and miss the Oscar eligibility period.
I also like Queen of Katwe starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo. And it’s directed by an Indian woman! (Mira Nair). It tells the (true but Hollywood-ized) story of a young girl from Uganda who trains to become a national chess champion. It is the perfect underdog story and has a talented cast and crew behind it, but it is still a chess movie, and it’ll be difficult to make that interesting (we haven’t had a big chess movie since Searching for Bobby Fischer at the ’94 Oscars for Best Cinematography).
With all that said, these movies aren’t out to general audiences yet (some of them aren’t even finished yet) and their Oscar worthiness is still unknown. But hopefully you’re interested in these movies now, and you’ll look out for them and maybe even watch them, and possibly even like (or love) them and spread the word so that others can find them as well. Oscar movies tend to be small films with tiny marketing budgets so if we really want diversity in that field, we as viewers need to go seek out the films that are out there. History has repeatedly shown that nobody (especially not the Academy) is going to do that work for us.