Editorial: Oscar nominations so-not-white this year

Two women talking on a movie set.
Actress Frances McDormand, left, and director Chloé Zhao on the set of “Nomadland.” Both were both nominated for Oscars for their work on the film.
(Joshua Richards / Searchlight Pictures)

In the past several years, the slates of Oscar nominees have varied from less white — as in 2017 when “Moonlight” was named best picture — to overwhelmingly white and male last year. But the nominations announced Monday are so dramatically and historically diverse that in some categories people of color outnumber white contenders.

In the directing category, the change is breathtaking. The list includes two women — Emerald Fennell and Chloé Zhao, the first woman of color (she is from Beijing) to be nominated for directing — and Lee Isaac Chung, the first Asian American to receive a directing nod. It’s also the first time that the directing field has two female nominees. Rounding out the category are David Fincher and Thomas Vinterberg, putting these two white male directors in another category they are rarely in: the minority.

In the best actor category, there are more men of color — a Black man, an Asian American, and a British Pakistani Muslim — than white men. And in the best actress category, there are two Black women. Among the 10 nominees for supporting roles, four are people of color; in fact, most of the supporting actor nominees are Black men.

There was such a plethora of well-received films that dealt with stories about Black people by Black people that, as many as were nominated in various categories, even more were snubbed. That sort of wealth of opportunity is beginning to look like something approaching normal life in Hollywood for white filmmakers. And while it’s great to see people of color tell stories that come from their communities, it’s also thrilling to see them recognized for offering whatever compelling story they choose. Zhao’s nomination as a director for “Nomadland” isn’t for a film about her Chinese roots, it’s for a film largely about poor white people.


No one would declare that Hollywood is transformed, not in the way the rainy Oscar nominations morning turned sunny. For one thing, there were still disturbingly few Latinx nominations. But this is certainly progress in Hollywood, and that’s the result of a number of factors.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, has substantially increased and diversified its ranks in the nine years since a Los Angeles Times investigation found the academy membership was overwhelmingly white, male and old. Meanwhile, larger societal forces, most recently the racial reckoning that began last summer, are slowly changing the entire entertainment industry.

As film scholar Neil Landau observes, the success of the South Korean film “Parasite,” which won best picture and best director for Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho, has also influenced Hollywood decision-makers. And the streaming services that put many of these nominated films out for viewing have global audiences that may demand more diverse films.

Whatever the reasons, it’s fantastic that the Oscar nominations ended up where they did. We’ll see next year whether it was a pandemic-induced exception or another step in the right direction.