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Oscars: Record Six Black Actors Nominated, Diversity Improves After Controversy

After last year’s nominations spawned #OscarsSoWhite, all eyes were on the Academy Award nominations Tuesday – and in stark contrast to 2016, this year proved to be a much stronger year for diversity, both in front of and behind the camera.

While no actors of color were nominated the last two years, this year saw every acting category recognizing a person of color. A record-tying (with 2007) seven minority actors were recognized, including a record six black actors.

In best actor, Denzel Washington landed his seventh nomination for “Fences,” extending his record as the most nominated black actor. His co-star Viola Davis was nominated in supporting actress, which also saw Davis’ “The Help” co-star Octavia Spencer nominated for “Hidden Figures” and Naomie Harris for “Moonlight.” With three nods, Davis is now the most nominated black actress.

In the lead actress category, Ruth Negga was nominated for her work in “Loving.” And in supporting actor, Mahershala Ali landed a nom for “Moonlight.” Also recognized in supporting actor was Dev Patel, a British actor of Indian descent, for “Lion.”

However, these films were already in production last year, and it could take several years to radically change course in response to last year’s controversy.

But it didn’t just stop with the acting; many prominent categories also recognized people of color. With “Manchester by the Sea” nominated for best picture, Kimberly Steward is only the second black female to be nominated for producing — the first was none other than Oprah Winfrey for “Selma.” Variety profiled the up-and-coming producer in April.

As writer-director of “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins found himself the fourth black best director nominee, after John Singleton, Lee Daniels, and Steve McQueen. His writing nomination, shared with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, made them the seventh and eighth black men nominated for screenplay. And Jenkins is only the second black writer-director to find himself nominated for both categories, after Singleton. Also notable in the writing category is the late August Wilson, the prominent black playwright whose adaptation of “Fences” made the cut.

The documentary feature category was made up almost entirely of people of color – Ava DuVernay (“13th”), Raoul Peck (“I Am Not Your Negro”), Ezra Edelman (“O.J.: Made in America”), and Roger Ross Williams (“Life, Animated”). Previously, there have only been three black directors nominated in the category, and DuVernay marks the first black woman.

Other notable noms include: Bradford Young for his cinematography of “Arrival,” only the second black nominee ever after Remi Adefarasin for “Elizabeth.” And with her editing nomination for “Moonlight,” Joi McMillon became the first black female nominee in the category, and second black nominee after Hugh A. Robertson for “Midnight Cowboy.” In the same category is “La La Land” editor Tom Cross, who is half-Asian; two years ago, Cross won in the category for “Whiplash.”  And Lin-Manuel Miranda, the American-born artist who is primarily of Puerto Rican descent, could find himself EGOT-ing this year with his best song nomination for “Moana.”

The nominations earned praise from the African American Film Critics Association; AAFCA President Gil Robertson IV stated, “The African American Film Critics Association is totally thrilled with the record-breaking number of nominations earned this year by actors and other creative artists of color. AAFCA applauds the Academy’s efforts and we hope that their progress continues to reflect America’s rich diversity.”

While the nominations brought good news for African Americans, there are still strides to be made when it comes to other minorities.

Rashad Robinson, executive director of the online racial injustice organization Color Of Change, applauded the nominations, but called for greater representation overall. “Achieving this diversity is not the responsibility of the Academy alone,” Robinson wrote in a statement. That responsibility also lies with casting directors, studio executives, and financial backers who have a moral responsibility to support projects that tell authentic, compassionate stories that reflect the diversity of our country and to offer opportunities on screen and behind the scenes to Black film professionals, as well as Latino, Asian American, and Native American film professionals, who also remain severely under-recognized and underrepresented in Hollywood.”

“Without question, the multi-dimensional portrayals of our community are what audiences want and film studios fell short again this past year in meeting that need with greater opportunity for talent of all races and ethnicities,” echoed Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “Latinos are outraged, our actors are not getting the opportunities to work in front of camera, and with few exceptions, in back of camera as well.”

Strides also have to be made for female nominees. Once again, women were shut out of the best director category and of the 10 nominated screenplays, “Hidden Figures” co-writer Allison Schroeder was the only woman nominated. And after all these years, a woman has yet to be nominated in the cinematography category.

Producers fared better; in addition to Steward, female producers who saw their films up for best picture include Carla Hacken and Julie Yorn (“Hell or High Water”), Adele Romanski and Dede Gardner (“Moonlight”), Donna Gigliotti and Jenno Topping (“Hidden Figures”), and Angie Fielder (“Lion”).

The Academy Awards will air Feb. 26 on ABC.

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