There have been few months in the history of the film academy as dramatic as the last two. The public outcry over the lack of minority nominees in the Oscar acting races for the 88th Academy Awards seemed to shake Hollywood’s venerable institution to its core. Impressively, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, and board of governors reacted promptly, announcing plans to expedite the diversification of its membership.
A quick survey of the 2016 film landscape indicates that there will be a number of films featuring people of color for the academy to consider next time around.
Judging from the euphoric response to Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” at January’s Sundance Film Festival, the first major Oscar front-runner may already be in our midst. “Birth,” which is based on the true story of the Nat Turner-led slave uprising in 1831 Virginia, won the audience award and the grand jury prize for the U.S. dramatic competition. Fox Searchlight won a bidding war that found the mini-major putting up a festival record $17.5million for worldwide rights. Searchlight has worked Oscar magic with a number of Sundance titles over the years and could position a campaign for best picture, director and actor for Parker. Aja Naomi King, who plays Turner’s wife, Cherry, in the picture, could also factor in the supporting actress race.
Craig Robinson, known more for his comedic work, could merit serious awards consideration in 2017. “The Office” star won a special grand jury award at Sundance for his turn in writer-director Chad Hartigan’s romance “Morris From America.” And Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers should also garner attention for their roles as a young Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama in “Southside With You.”
Some of Hollywood’s A-listers will also take to the big screen in the coming months. In September, two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington will reunite with his “Training Day” director, Antoine Fuqua, in a remake of the classic western “The Magnificent Seven.” And Will Smith, passed over for his work in “Concussion” this Oscar season, returns with another dramatic role in David Frankel’s “Collateral Beauty,” which is expected to open in December.
Viola Davis, a two-time nominee, will star as a judge in James Lapine’s courtroom drama, “Custody.” Currently without distribution, the film also features fellow nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno (“Maria Full of Grace”) as a young mother fighting to keep her kids.
A number of actors from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” are now involved in prestige pictures. Oscar Isaac is part of a love triangle in Terry George’s early 20th century drama, “The Promise”; John Boyega has a crucial role in James Ponsoldt’s tech thriller, “The Circle”; and after giving motion-capture life to an alien in “The Force Awakens,” Lupita Nyong’o will put her own face in front of the camera alongside David Oyelowo in Mira Nair’s chess drama, “Queen of Katwe.”
Oyelowo also appears in “A United Kingdom,” a historical drama in which he’ll play Seretse Khama, the Botswanan president whose marital union to a white woman caused a global uproar in 1948. That subject may prove to be a theme for 2016 as Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” chronicles Richard and Mildred Loving’s battle to decriminalize interracial marriage during the Civil Rights era and could provide a poignant showcase for star Ruth Negga.
Other performances to look for: Javier Bardem in “The Last Face,” Don Cheadle in “Miles Ahead,” Gugu Mbatha-Raw in “Free State of Jones,” Djimon Hounsou in “Same Kind of Different as Me,” Chris Tucker in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” and newcomer Stephan James in “Race.”
That’s a lot to look forward to. And something else to consider: It’s only February. At this time in 2014, “Selma” hadn’t begun filming. At this time last year, “The Big Short” was still in preproduction. So there’s still time for industry executives to seek out the outstanding work of actors and filmmakers from all ethnic backgrounds.