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BAFTA Nominations: A Good Day for Ken Loach and ‘La La Land,’ Less So for Diversity

Barry Jenkins and Denzel Washington are prominently absent from a list otherwise heavy on the usual suspects.

There was a time, way back in the mists of the 20th century, when you wouldn’t have looked to the BAFTAs to confirm any predictions you had about the upcoming Academy Awards — not least because they took place comfortably after the Oscars, happily marching to their own beat not just in terms of scheduling, but voting too. Those were days when “Jean de Florette” and “The Commitments” won Best Picture, while Wim Wenders could sneak in a Best Director win for “Paris, Texas.”

They’re also very much over: Since 2001, when BAFTA jumped back to precede the Academy’s shindig, they’ve embraced their Oscar precursor status, gravitating almost exclusively around films and artists with awards buzz echoing from across the Atlantic, and giving mostly short shrift to Britain’s own independent cinema.

This morning’s BAFTA nominations see them largely stick to that system, albeit with some key deviations from the Oscar playbook that recall the more self-steered British Academy of old. To the surprise of precisely nobody, recent Golden Globes sweeper and presumed Oscar favorite “La La Land” leads the field with 11 nominations, missing nary a category in which it could conceivably compete. Meanwhile, “Manchester by the Sea” and “Moonlight” — the films that have joined Damien Chazelle’s original musical to form a near-unbreakable trinity of frontrunners all season — also landed in the Best Film category, even if the latter has reason to be disappointed. (More on that shortly.)

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The remaining two top slots, however, were filled with less of a sense of inevitability. Awards pundits have been undecided all season on the likely fortunes of “Arrival,” Denis Villeneuve’s elegant heart-and-head sci-fi puzzler, but a healthy nine nominations, including mentions for Best Film, Director and Actress, might persuade the uncertain that it’s an Oscar player to be reckoned with.

That haul places it second on the BAFTA nomination leaderboard, a position it shares with this season’s recurring wild card, “Nocturnal Animals.” Tom Ford’s tricksily structured revenge drama repeated its Golden Globe feat of landing multiple semi-unexpected nods in the top categories (including two for Ford himself and one for shock Globe winner Aaron Taylor-Johnson), but falling just short of a Best Film nomination. The film’s many critics might say that’s an apt fate for a work they see as less than the sum of its many dazzling parts, but with the Oscars having more slots to play with, don’t be stunned if it cracks the Best Picture lineup.

But where BAFTA really stood its own ground this morning, going to bat for a film with scarcely any chance of awards recognition in the U.S., was in those five key nominations, including Best Film and Director, for Ken Loach’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner “I, Daniel Blake.” It’s fair recognition for a British film that, in addition to its critical and festival acclaim, significantly connected with the U.K. public upon its release in October 2016, its unsubtle but affecting social tract stoking a heated nationwide conversation about the government’s problem-riddled benefits system.

That’s pretty much exactly what Loach, now 80, was put on the planet to do, but he’s received less BAFTA recognition for it than you might think: This is the first time he’s landed in BAFTA race besides Best British Film since “Kes” in 1969. This morning’s news will come as consolation to Team Loach after “Blake” was essentially steamrolled at last month’s British Independent Film Awards — the U.K.’s answer to the Spirits — by Andrea Arnold’s edgier, less populist “American Honey,” which today landed a Best British Film nod and no more. Arnold’s sidelining is far more typical of BAFTA’s usual approach to its most adventurous local filmmakers; another multiple BIFA winner, Babak Anvari’s foreign-language Oscar submission “Under the Shadow,” was likewise restricted to non-general categories.

But Loach’s home-turf success means one of the bigger players has to sit out the race — and over in Best Director, that meant the rather startling omission of “Moonlight’s” Barry Jenkins. Jenkins may not be a familiar face to most BAFTA voters (“Medicine for Melancholy” never received a U.K. release, for one thing), but his hefty presence on the circuit thus far might have led one to assume he was a safer bet, even on foreign ground, than Tom Ford.

With just four nominations, including Best Film, Original Screenplay and acting bids for Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris, “Moonlight” might be considered the morning’s most conspicuous under-performer, scoring not even below the line for its widely celebrated cinematography and editing. (Such omissions at the nomination stage are all the more surprising given BAFTAs switch a few years ago to the Academy’s system of branch-determined voting for the nominations and membership-wide voting for the winners; it used to be the reverse, with frequently, sometimes delightfully, quirky results — gone are the days when a “Mulholland Dr.” could bag an editing win.)

At a time when “diversity” is a watchword for such voting groups — and with BAFTA itself having recently implemented bold new measures to up the diversity of its British fields — Jenkins’s miss is less likely to be waved off as just one of those things, particularly in light of the morning’s other most prominent omission: that of “Fences” director-star Denzel Washington from the Best Actor lineup. Washington may be regarded as the only man with even a theoretical shot at beating precursor hoarder Casey Affleck at the Oscars, but made way for “Nocturnal Animals” star Jake Gyllenhaal in the BAFTA lineup, while “Fences” landed a solitary nomination for Viola Davis. Washington’s miss today maintains a stat that American awards-watchers may find astonishing: Despite six Oscar nominations and two wins, Washington has not once been nominated for a BAFTA.

As for the year’s third major African-American-centered awards hopeful, “Hidden Figures” bested “Fences” scribe August Wilson to nab the film’s one nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. (That “Figures” writers Ted Melfi and Allison Schroeder are both white doesn’t help the picture for BAFTA much.) Is a #BAFTASoWhite protest in the works? Well, that’d probably be overestimating the British awards’ cultural resonance and influence, but it is sure to be a talking point — especially in light of the commercial and distribution challenges that black-themed cinema already faces in the U.K.

African-American stories, in particular, are routinely a difficult sell to British audiences. A veritable blockbuster in the U.S., “The Help” — which did land a Best Film BAFTA nod — performed modestly in Blighty, while on the opposite end of the prestige spectrum, one-man industry Tyler Perry hasn’t had a film released theatrically in the U.K. since his bid for crossover respectability, “For Colored Girls…”, bombed hard in 2010. “Moonlight,” “Fences” and “Hidden Figures” are all very different kettles of fish — from each other as well as from such aforementioned examples — and we’ll find out how they land with British viewers when they open in February. But this less than effusive welcome from BAFTA will already be making their local distributors a tad nervous.

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