There is one more guild to go that will determine Best Picture and that is the Directors Guild, who announce on April 10 — this weekend. Oscar voting starts five days after that on the 15th, which is ten days from now. That means anything that happens between now and April 15th could still alter the course of the race. So what will be happening? The DGA, which is not expected to shake the tree, since we all know which director is winning that. The ASC, which will either confirm that Nomadland or Mank takes cinematography, or maybe some other movie. But otherwise? We’re making our way slowly … slowly … slowly to the finish line.
From the beginning of this year and all the way through it there has been an urgent need, as far as I can see anyway, to prioritize women and people of color. These things do not happen in a vacuum. Voters didn’t wake up suddenly and decide to vote a certain way. It has been a long, ongoing conversation to confront what has been a “white wall” of nominees for all of Oscar history. We started talking about it 20 years ago when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington were up for Best Actor and Best Actress. It turned out that just having the conversation drew awareness to the inherent bias in the voting.
But it, by no means, started there. This conversation goes all the way back to 1939 when Gone with the Wind swept the Oscars and Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress — from her distant isolated table in the very back of the room. It is a conversation that was again awakened in the 1970s, as this timeline of the Oscars at the LA Times illustrates from 1970:
The Oscars are held at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The show is picketed by blacks protesting the lack of black musicians in the orchestra and Latinos upset about portrayals in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” John Wayne picks up his first Oscar, for “True Grit,” and comments: “I should have put on that eye patch 35 years ago.”
It came raging back in 1985 when Steven Spielberg directed The Color Purple with an all-black cast and was criticized by various groups for various reasons, including softening the lesbian elements of the original book, and also received criticism from the black community, as the dearly departed Jack Matthews wrote back then:
Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” put more black actors on the film-industry payroll than perhaps any other movie since Martin Ritt’s “Sounder.” But unlike Ritt’s movie, which was also about poor blacks in the rural South in the early part of the century, “The Color Purple” is opening to harsh criticism from members of the black community.
“There is absolutely no balance in the movie,” says Kwazi Geiggar of the Coalition Against Black Exploitation, a 20-member group of black professionals and lay persons that monitors black-theme films and TV shows. “It portrays blacks in an extremely negative light. It degrades the black man, it degrades black children, it degrades the black family.
Geiggar, one of several coalition members who protested a special “Color Purple” screening Tuesday for the Black Women’s Forum, accused Spielberg of attempting to win awards at the expense of blacks.
“There is not one single black person with positive features in the movie,” Geiggar said. “There is only one scene in which a black man kisses a black woman . . . Men without exception are absolute savages and suffer no consequences for their actions.”
The Color Purple did have its share of black supporters, including long-time California Rep. Maxine Waters:
“It was one of the most beautiful and most powerful films I have ever seen,” Waters said. “I was overwhelmed with the central theme of how one gains strength and comes into being. I don’t find ‘Color Purple’ degrading or dehumanizing. That movie could have been about any color.”
Nevertheless, The Color Purple went home with zero Oscars as Out of Africa dominated the awards that year. There would not be another film with an all-black cast nominated for Best Picture until Precious in 2009 when they expanded the ballot.
It was a conversation that exploded again in 1989, when Spike Lee’s brilliant masterpiece Do the Right Thing earned only a Screenplay and Supporting Actor nod for one of the white actors, Danny Aiello. This was the first time I personally became aware of race and racism and the Academy Awards because I loved Do the Right Thing and I too was among those who were shocked that it was shut out of the Best Picture race. That led to this speech by Kim Basinger (wearing a dress designed by Prince):
Driving Miss Daisy (in)famously won Best Picture that year, even though its director, Bruce Beresford, was not nominated for Best Director at the Globes or the DGAs or the Oscars. To this day I find this one of the strangest things to ever happen in all of Oscar history.
At some point black contenders started winning more frequently — you can see the list here of how many black artists have won in the various categories throughout Oscar history. With the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, the rise of Twitter’s mobilized voice, and the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, we’ve arrived at the point where voters are simply no longer willing to wait for change. Time’s up. Last year, there were so many female-directing contenders that none of them got in. This year, critics made a concerted effort to throw almost all of their weight not just behind women and women of color filmmakers, but Chloe Zhao specifically.
The only thing that was surprising about the SAG awards last night was The Trial of the Chicago 7 winning in Ensemble. With four out of five ensemble casts of color, it seems odd that Chicago 7 would prevail THIS year, but then you have to remember last year where there were so many films by women but none got in because voters could not get their ducks in a row and pick one contender to rally behind. When they eventually backed Little Women, they did manage to push the movie into Best Picture and in some of the other categories, like acting and costumes.
SAG is 150K members of not just actors but AFTRA members. That means journalists, sports reporters, radio hosts, weathermen, and TV anchors. It isn’t that surprising that Chicago 7 won as it is the most liked by general audiences that was nominated for the SAG. But its win nevertheless stands in stark contrast to the kinds of films that have been winning all year.
Is Chicago 7 the only film that can threaten Nomadland? Stats would say yes: nothing else has even come close to beating it. If Chicago 7 had won the WGA for Original Screenplay, along with SAG ensemble, that would be a strong hand to play for an Oscar upset, like Spotlight, Crash, Shakespeare in Love, Parasite, etc. On the flip side, had Carey Mulligan won Best Actress last night, that, along with the WGA win, would put Promising Young Woman in Moonlight’s spot. But Mulligan didn’t win — Viola Davis did.
The question is, can Chicago 7 win without winning Screenplay and Director?
It has happened in the past.
1948: Hamlet — Picture, Actor, Costumes, Art Direction — lost Director and Screenplay to Treasure of the Sierra Madre
2000: Gladiator — Picture, Actor, Costumes, Sound, Visual Effects (PGA) — lost to Traffic in Director and to Almost Famous for Screenplay
2002: Chicago — Picture, Supporting Actress, Art Direction, Costumes, Editing, Sound (DGA/PGA/SAG ensemble) — lost Director and Screenplay to The Pianist
1930/31: Grand Hotel — Picture
1935: Mutiny on the Bounty — Picture — lost to The Informer for Director* and Screenplay
1936: The Great Ziegfeld — Picture, Actress, Dance Direction — lost to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town for Director
1940: Rebecca — Picture, Cinematography — lost to Grapes of Wrath for Director* and The Philadelphia Story for Screenplay
*Sidenote — both of these losses were to John Ford, who failed to win Best Picture for either The Informer or Grapes of Wrath, which is why he had such a strong advantage heading into 1941 when How Green Was My Valley would go up against Citizen Kane.
We do not have an example in the modern preferential era of a film winning Picture without at least one of Screenplay or Director.
The bottom line here is that The Trial of the Chicago 7 could win. Promising Young Woman could win. Judas and the Black Messiah could win. With the preferential ballot, it is often a crap shoot as to how it all lays out. But predicting an upset here is a long shot. Nomadland appears to still have it in the bag.
Best Actress, on the other hand, is completely wide open.