For the past two years, the announcement of Oscar nominations has been met with persistent protests over the lack of nonwhite nominees. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was beginning to feel like a regular late January trend. This year is different.
After two years without a single nonwhite acting nominee, seven of 20 nominations in 2017 went to nonwhite actors. Three of the nine Best Picture nominees feature mostly black casts, four of the five nominated documentaries have black directors and Viola Davis becomes the first black actress to earn three Oscar nominations.
The shift wasn’t exactly a surprise. Last year brought a comparative bounty — if still an overall dearth — of accomplished movies about the lives of people of color. There was Moonlight’s lyrical story of a young, gay black man growing up poor in Miami; Hidden Figures’ celebration of the black female mathematicians who sent John Glenn (et. al.) into space; Fences’ intimate depiction of the life of a black family in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. There was Lion and its true story of an Indian-Australian man navigating a bifurcated identity, and Moana, Disney’s first animated movie set in the South Pacific, whose nomination for Original Song helped Lin-Manuel Miranda get one step closer to an EGOT.
Still, this year’s inclusive list of nominees can’t be entirely chalked up to the mere existence of those movies. Recall that in 2015, there were plenty of nonwhite stories for which Academy members might have cast their votes — Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation, Chi-Raq, Creed — but (mostly) didn’t.
The change might be explained by the Academy’s efforts, under President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and in response to last year’s uproar, to diversify its ranks. It may be explained by an increased commitment, among members, to get around to screeners they might have passed over in the past. And it may simply have something to do with the random timing of Hollywood releases; the life span of a movie, from conception to release, is a multiyear affair, and the fact that the crop released this year was released this year is as much coincidence as anything.
But even if we can’t fully explain it, what are we to make of this year’s retiring, at least temporarily, of #OscarsSoWhite? First, it’s important to remember that the historic lack of diversity among Oscar nominees has less to do with the whiteness of the Academy (although that is most definitely a thing) than it does with the decisions that get made behind the scenes. As of one year ago, the top six Hollywood studios counted just two African Americans and five Asian Americans among a combined 60 top executives, according to the Hollywood Reporter. And there is still a perception in the industry that movies helmed by or featuring people of color won’t succeed at the box office, despite evidence to the contrary.
The result: Hollywood still has a long way to go. According to the 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at University of California, Los Angeles, which studied films released from 2013 to 2014, minorities were underrepresented 3 to 1 among movie leads, 3 to 1 among directors and 5 to 1 among actors. A similar study by the University of Southern California found that 28.3% of characters with dialogue were nonwhite, though nearly 40% of the U.S. population is nonwhite, and only 7% of films had a cast reflective, percentage-wise, of the country’s diversity.
This year’s nominations aren’t perfect, either. For the eighth year in a row, no women were nominated for Best Director. Representation among Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, LGBT and gender-nonconforming people and people with disabilities is paltry to nonexistent.
A more inclusive Oscars in 2017 is a sign of progress, not an indication that Hollywood’s problems have been solved. It is a sign that perhaps the spotlight on the lack of inclusion is paying off, not an indication that that spotlight should be dimmed.