Last month’s Emmy Awards ceremony was filled with “firsts.”
Master of None’s Lena Waithe became the first black woman to win a comedy writing award, Atlanta’s Donald Glover was the first black person to win a comedy directing trophy, This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown was the first lead actor in a drama winner in nearly 20 years, and Riz Ahmed was the first Asian man to win a lead acting Emmy, for the limited series The Night Of.
It was, or at least it seemed like, news-making progress in diversity and inclusion in Hollywood, a conversation ignited two years ago by the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and movement, created in 2015 by activist April Reign when no actor of color was nominated for an Oscar, despite there being deserving contenders and films. Infamously, the whiteout repeated itself the following year.
Yet in the midst of the celebration over that Emmys diversity, Shonda Rhimes clarified that these historic wins might be sending the wrong message to an industry eager to be self-satisfied when it comes to progress.
“It’s embarrassing, frankly,” she told Vanity Fair after the awards. “To me, it feels embarrassing that we are still in a place in which we still have to note these moments… I’m hoping that it’s not a trend. I’m hoping that people don’t feel satisfied because they saw a lot of people win, and then think that we’re done.”
The proof in Rhimes’ warning might be coming sooner than we think.
With the New York Film Festival wrapping up its slate of high-profile premieres this week and only a handful of expected award season contenders yet to screen for critics, the preliminary list of strongest Oscar contenders is starting to materialize.
It is, of course, far too early to consider any nomination or exclusion a sure-thing. But as the major contenders fall into place, a concerning possibility is already presenting itself: #OscarsSoWhite could realistically happen again this year.
To begin with, just one year after the Academy breathed its sigh of relief that Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures received nominations and wins, there is only a small handful of films about the experiences of people of color that are poised to play into the Best Picture race.
Not only that, but it’s feasible that not a single actor of color will be nominated.
With most major players having already screened, it’s safe to say that Get Out, The Big Sick, and Mudbound, in that order, are the only films with non-white protagonists that figure into the Best Picture race. Even then, they should be considered underdogs.
Get Out, despite its rave reviews and box-office success, would be the rare Best Picture nominee to make it through the awards season after premiering all the way back in February. (It was actually released two days before last year’s ceremony aired.) Plus, it’s extremely uncommon for horror to figure into the Best Picture category, let alone a horror film centered around race.
The Big Sick, too, is hurt by genre bias, being an R-rated romantic comedy. Few out-and-out comedies in recent years have made it to Best Picture—Silver Linings Playbook, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Midnight in Paris, and, arguably, The Wolf of Wall Street—and they were buoyed by having auteurs David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese behind them. Plus, The Big Sick’s summer release date means its buzz might have waned too much by the time awards voting rolls around.
The biggest wildcard here is Mudbound, director Dee Rees’ stunning historical epic that debuted to a windfall of great reviews at Sundance this winter, and was purchased by Netflix. The streaming service has yet to get its feature films Academy attention outside of the documentary category. Amazon made a dent on behalf of streaming services last year with wins for Manchester By the Sea, but Mudbound faces an uphill battle because of Netflix’s untested track record.
As it stands, award prognosticators for Gold Derby, Awards Watch, and Vulture predict that, assuming there are 10 nominees this year, Get Out and The Big Sick will barely make the cut—behind surer things like Dunkirk, The Post, Call Me By Your Name, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Awards Daily doesn’t include The Big Sick on its list, while Mudbound isn’t predicted by any of them.
But then there is the question of acting races.
Last year saw nominations for Denzel Washington (Fences) in Best Actor, Ruth Negga (Loving) in Best Actress, Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) and Dev Patel (Lion) in Best Supporting Actor, and Viola Davis (Fences), Naomie Harris (Moonlight), and Octavia Spencer in (Hidden Figures).
This year, there aren’t even that many performances in serious contention for nominations.
Denzel Washington for his role in Roman J. Israel, Esq. is the sole Best Actor candidate of color, and is currently being held in the fifth and final slot of awards experts’ ranking of contenders—and that’s when he’s included at all. Because of his film’s lukewarm reviews out of the Toronto International Film Festival, that standing will only become even more tenuous as the season goes on.
The Best Supporting Actor race has Idris Elba (Molly’s Game) and Jason Mitchell (Mudbound) in contention, and both are considered long shots for a fifth slot. In the Best Supporting Actress race, Octavia Spencer (Shape of Water) and Mary J. Blige (Mudbound), are serious parts of the conversation, but in what is considered one of the most competitive categories, one or both could easily fall out of the top five. Hong Chau, of Downsizing, is also an outside contender.
As it stands, there’s not a single leading performance from an actress of color that experts consider in contention.
It bears repeating how early it is in awards season and how much jockeying there still is to be done in the horse race. A more rapturous response than expected for Molly’s Game could lead Elba’s odds to surge, and a warmer embrace for Netflix than the service has historically received could change the game completely for Mudbound and its players. Of course, performers who aren’t already on the radar could still emerge as late-fall contenders.
We’re merely sounding the siren. This could happen again.
So champion these films and these performances, not for any sort of token representation or for the sole reason of preventing a third round of #OscarsSoWhite, but because they are deserving and, institutionally and historically, the Academy is more reluctant to screen and reward them.
But more, take to heart the lesson that Shonda Rhimes and countless others in the industry have been preaching. It’s not enough to cheer milestones of diversity and pat institutions on the back for a year that proves an exception to the rule. It’s putting diverse talent behind the camera, in studio positions, in voting bodies, and in positions of opportunity—changing the status quo of the system—so that projects earning awards buzz featuring people of color aren’t solitary examples to fret over, but simply normal. And, hey, reflective of actual culture, too.