With the country seeming more divided than it has been in decades, Hollywood on Tuesday stepped in as a unifying force.
As Gov. Jerry Brown expressed defiance toward President Donald Trump in Northern California, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, to the south, revealed a big-tent nominations list for the Feb. 26 Oscar ceremony, representing diverse segments of society. They include ground-breaking black, professional women; gay men; heterosexual, demoralized working-class white men and black men; criminals and the law-and-order types who keep them in line; and devoutly Christian conscientious objectors who nonetheless engage in wartime battles filled with enough carnage to please any hawk. Oh, and Los Angelenos prone to sudden fits of singing and dancing.
These nominations boost the profiles of the creative people involved but also the likelihood of the general public seeing the films in question. Thus more people might seek out “Moonlight,” nominated for eight Oscars including best picture, to witness its depiction of a boy named Chiron growing up black, gay and bullied – by classmates and his drug-addicted mother – in 1980s Miami.
Or join viewers who already have flocked to best-picture contender “Hidden Figures,” based on the true story of the female African American NASA employees who in the early 1960s made mathematical calculations that helped put the first Americans in space. Or rent best-picture nominee “Hacksaw Ridge,” when it begins streaming in February, to get the perspective of a white, Seventh-day Adventist conscientious objector who withstood an abusive, alcoholic father, and bullying within the Army ranks, to serve his country, as a medic, during World War II.
A strong group of movies centered on African American characters resulted in breakthroughs in the nomination ranks. For the first time, six – Ruth Negga (“Loving”), Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (“Fences”), Octavia Spencer (“Hidden Figures”), Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) – of 20 acting nominees are black. Davis, previously nominated for “Doubt” and “The Help,” became the first black actress nominated three times. British actor Dev Patel, up for best supporting actor for his performance as a young Australian seeking his birth family in India in “Lion,” is only the third Oscar nominee ever of Indian descent, after Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi”) and Merle Oberon (“The Dark Angel”).
The acting nominee ranks are by no means truly diverse – one must look fairly far down ballot to find Latino nominees Lin-Manuel Miranda (best song, from the film “Moana”) and Rodrigo Prieto (cinematography, “Silence”). But they represent a striking improvement over the past two years, during which there were no acting nominees of color. A resulting #Oscarssowhite protest led the Academy to seek out greater youthfulness and diversity, inviting in 683 new film professionals to join the awards body last year. They included “Moonlight’s” Ali, a 2017 supporting nominee favored to win for his performance as a complex drug dealer named Juan, director and Sacramento State alumnus Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”), and 2016 Oscar lead actress winner and former Elk Grove resident Brie Larson (“Room”).
It’s hard to say if the Academy’s revised membership affected the 2017 nominations. list. There also were seven nominees of color 10 years ago, when two of them – Forest Whitaker (“The King of Scotland”) and Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”) won Oscars. “Fences,” in which Washington directs himself as a former Negro Leagues ballplayer turned 1950s garbage man embittered by the racism he has faced and his humdrum middle-aged existence, probably would win awards notice in any year, due to Washington’s participation and the film’s origin as a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by the late August Wilson. The “Fences” script, also by Wilson (up for a posthumous screenplay Oscar) had been kicking around unmade for years, partly because Wilson had insisted on a black director.
“Figures” also likely would be nominated in any year, thanks to its fascinating real-life story. But neither it nor “Fences,” whose directors did not receive nods, has the awards juice of critical darling and 2017 drama Golden Globe winner “Moonlight.” A strong contender for best picture, director (Barry Jenkins), adapted screenplay and supporting actor (Ali), “Moonlight” would be a clear favorite to clean up on Feb. 26 had it not shared a release year with the effervescent musical “La La Land,” which is about Hollywood and thus catnip to Oscar voters.
“La La” leads all comers with 14 nominations, tying “Titanic” and “All About Eve” for most ever. “Moonlight” and the aliens-among-us drama “Arrival” trail with eight apiece. These numbers deceive. “La La” and the effects-laden “Arrival” are competing in categories that do not apply to “Moonlight,” such as best original song (two “La La” nods) and sound editing and mixing (two “Arrival” nods).
“Moonlight” drew nearly every nomination it could – including cinematography, editing and score – as a beautifully made yet low-budget drama lacking a (single) lead performance (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes play Chiron at different stages of life). British actress Harris scored her supporting nod for playing Chiron’s mother. The only “Moonlight” snub was of Janelle Monáe, warm and wonderful as Juan’s girlfriend and Chiron’s friend.
Jenkins, the fourth black man ever to score a directing nomination (no black woman has), might be the first to win. “Moonlight,” the most heralded gay-themed film since 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” also would break new ground if it wins best picture. Although Ang Lee won the Oscar for directing “Brokeback,” the film famously lost the best-picture prize to “Crash.”
The 2017 Oscar nominations also acknowledge population segments with which Hollywood has been accused of being out of touch, like the white, red-state working poor largely credited with Trump’s win in the 2016 election.
Best-picture contender “Hell or High Water” offers a sympathetic portrayal of Toby (Chris Pine), a fictional West Texas man economically marginalized by a local boom-or-bust oil economy. With his ex-con brother, Toby robs branches of the bank that bilked his late mother through a predatory loan, putting the family in jeopardy.
“Water” stops short of making Toby a folk hero by granting equal screen time and sympathy to a representative of a profession surrounded by controversy in real-life 2016: law enforcement. Supporting actor nominee Jeff Bridges plays a Texas Ranger who understands Toby to a degree but is committed to bringing him to justice.
Fellow supporting-actor nominee Michael Shannon plays another West Texas lawman, this one beyond committed, in “Nocturnal Animals.” Shannon’s is the only relatable character in fashion designer-turned-director Tom Ford’s otherwise squirrelly story-within-a-story involving aesthetically perfect L.A. rich people and cartoonishly hick Texas criminals.
The rural working class finds more heroic representation in “Hacksaw Ridge,” up for six Oscars, including picture and director (Mel Gibson). The Academy’s recognition of Gibson, already a directing winner for 1995’s “Braveheart,” marks his comeback from persona-non-grata status attained when he made anti-Semitic comments during a 2006 DUI arrest.
“Hacksaw” tells the real-life story of Desmond Doss (an earnest, endearing Andrew Garfield, up for best actor), a Christian who refused to fire a gun but served valiantly at Okinawa, saving many lives. This film features subject matter conservative America holds dear, including the military and religion, while delivering enough graphic war footage to satisfy action-film fans of all belief systems.
The most welcome recent Hollywood developments regarding women – a subject that drew 2.5 million marchers worldwide last weekend – are the box office success and best-picture nod for “Figures.” But the film’s only acting nominee, Spencer – for her supporting turn as a NASA employee battling prejudice in having her supervisory role acknowledged – likely will lose to 2017 Golden Globe winner and Oscar favorite Davis, from “Fences.”
That’s OK, because Davis’ performance, as the wife who keeps things together at home when her husband gets unruly but calls him out when he goes too far, is the most moving in the field. And her character is heroic in her own way, as a 1950s homemaker challenging her family’s breadwinner.