When the dust settled Tuesday morning after announcement of this year's Oscar nominees, it was clear that Academy Awards voters had diversity and inclusion on their minds. Among the nominees are Pakistani American Kumail Nanjiani for "The Big Sick" (who wrote the original screenplay nominee with wife Emily V. Gordon, inspired by their courtship), "Mudbound" actress Mary J. Blige (in the supporting actress and original song categories, the latter of which she shares with Raphael Saadiq) and three directors — Jordan Peele ("Get Out"), Greta Gerwig ("Lady Bird") and Guillermo del Toro ("The Shape of Water") — who don't fit their category's historically white male template.
Making history, however, are the foreign film "A Fantastic Woman" and feature documentary "Strong Island," projects with transgender voices, making it quite possible that the work of an openly trans person could earn one of the industry's top prizes in March. "Mudbound" cinematographer Rachel Morrison also made history as the first woman nominated in the category.
"Seeing two out transgender people [represented] in this year's Oscar nominees is a big step forward toward more inclusive and diverse content in Hollywood," said Nick Adams, GLAAD's director of transgender media and representation, in a statement to The Times.
"A Fantastic Woman" follows Marina, a waitress and nightclub singer who must put her life back together after her older boyfriend dies suddenly. But because she's a transgender woman in a country with little to no support for trans people, she has to navigate cruelties lodged both by her boyfriend's unaccepting family and the government. Newcomer Daniela Vega, who is trans, stars in the Chilean movie nominated for the foreign-language film Oscar, and though her performance wasn't recognized on its own, director Sebastián Lelio said the picture wouldn't be what it is without her.
"Daniela's presence took the film in a different dimension, and she brought something that a cisgender actor wouldn't be able to bring," Lelio said. "She brought a real, beating heart to everything."
Vega also served as a cultural consultant of sorts for Lelio in the writing process. In an interview with The Times last year, Vega, who called herself the first and only trans actress in Chile, lent her voice to the ongoing conversation about LGBTQ representation in film.
"Why is it just now that trans individuals are starting to run next to people who have always had those opportunities to play the main roles?," she asked. "Why is that just happening?"
As for "Strong Island," which won a special jury prize at Sundance last year, it charts Yance Ford's journey to reconnect with the officers and prosecutors involved in the case about his brother's killing and discover how the grand jury could have made its decision. Featuring emotional interviews with Ford's mother and sister, it's an intimate meditation of how a family's personal tragedy is situated in an institutionalized fear of blackness and how a loved one's unexplainable death has impact decades later. Ford, who directed the film, is a trans man.
While the film doesn't address Ford's trans-ness, "it is important that his work has received recognition from the academy," said Adams.
Morrison also finds herself in the history books as the first woman, after 90 years of the film academy, to receive a cinematography nomination. In responding to the "dream-come-true" nod, she said she hopes it "opens the door for more women to believe that they can do it and follow their dreams and become cinematographers."
"I think that once you see 50% of us [represented in the industry,] you'll see a lot more nominations this time of year," she said.
We'll find out March 4 whether any of these nominees will become Oscar winners. Until then, the recognition does represent a more diverse and equitable future the industry appears to be working toward.