Academy Awards Barely Escape a Reprise of #OscarsSoWhite

Adam B. Vary

Until Issa Rae and John Cho announced “Harriet” star Cynthia Erivo as a nominee for best actress for the 92nd Academy Awards, it was looking increasingly likely that the Oscars were heading for a repeat of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that drove the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences four years ago to aggressively begin diversifying its membership.

Instead, Erivo saved the Academy from the embarrassment of yet another slate of all-white acting nominees — but just barely.

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This year’s Oscar nominations for acting still managed to shut out a wealth of highly regarded performances by actors of color who did earn nominations for several other lead-up awards.

Those include Awkwafina in “The Farewell” (best actress winner at the Golden Globes and nominee at the Critics’ Choice Awards), Jennifer Lopez in “Hustlers” (best supporting actress nominee at the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice Awards, SAG Awards and Independent Spirit Awards), Eddie Murphy in “Dolemite Is My Name” (best actor nominee at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards), Zhao Shuzhen in “The Farewell” (best supporting actress nominee at the Critics’ Choice Awards and Independent Spirit Awards), Lupita Nyong’o in “Us” (best actress nominee at the SAG Awards), Alfre Woodard in “Clemency” (best actress nominee at the Independent Spirit Awards) and Jamie Foxx in “Just Mercy” (best supporting actor nominee at the SAG Awards). Some awards pundits had also pegged Song Kang-ho in “Parasite” as a potential surprise Oscar nominee for best supporting actor.

The Academy membership almost followed in the footsteps of the BAFTA Film Awards, which nominated an all-white slate of acting nominees for this year’s ceremony — a move Marc Samuelson, the chair of BAFTA’s film committee, called “infuriating.” Samuelson subsequently announced a “careful and detailed review” of the BAFTA Film Awards’ voting process, but Erivo declined an invitation to sing at the ceremony.

“The reason I didn’t perform is because I don’t think it’s proper representation, as a woman of color, of people of color in this industry,” she told Variety on Jan. 9 about her decision to sit out the BAFTAs. “Let’s see how (the review) does, whether it affects next year or the year after, who knows, but I definitely think it’s time for change, we can’t overlook it any more.”

The Academy underwent similar soul-searching — and transformation — after back-to-back years of all-white acting nominees for the 2015 and 2016 awards ceremonies. Shortly after the 2016 nominations, then-Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced sweeping changes to membership and voting rules, and a concerted effort to increase the number of women and people of color among the Academy membership.

Those efforts doubled the percentage of people of color within the Academy in just four years, from 8% in 2015 to 16% in 2019.

Given Monday’s nomination announcement, it’s clear that the Academy’s recent efforts to make its voting base more inclusive aren’t enough for the organization to recognize a diverse array of filmmaking talent.

Erivo, however, is a double Oscar nominee this year — she also earned an Oscar nod, with Joshuah Brian Campbell, for best original song for “Stand Up” from “Harriet.” So it appears, at least, that the Oscars will get the benefit of Erivo’s peerless voice at its ceremony.

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