Will color return to this year's Oscar season?
When Oscar nominations were announced earlier this year, it was impossible to avoid this unsubtle fact: All of the major nominees were white. And when the presenters had all taken their turn on the Kodak Theatre stage, not a single black man was among them, a fact that Samuel Jackson noted tartly in an email to a Times reporter.
It was a sharp turn from the 2009-10 season, when “Precious” and "The Blind Side" drew numerous accolades, and there were black nominees for best director, best picture and best actress (and black winners for best supporting actress and best adapted screenplay).
For anyone concerned about which way the Oscars could go this year, there's reason to take heart. As a new season gets underway, there are signs the Oscars could return to the diversity of two years ago. In fact, the show this year could match and even surpass those landmark events -- and not only because Eddie Murphy is presiding (the first black host since Chris Rock in 2004) or because Oprah Winfrey will be given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, the academy's honorary Oscar. It's the potential nominees themselves who offer the prospect of a more diverse Oscars.
And it could happen, notably, on the basis of more than just one or two films -- and without the help of Oscar stalwarts such as Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Halle Berry or Will Smith, none of whom have new movies this year.
Driving the expectations, of course, is the Southern drama "The Help." Oscar handicappers are already predicting a best actress nomination for Viola Davis, while Octavia Spencer could be in the mix too, likely in the supporting category.
There's also T.J. Martin, co-director of the documentary "The Undefeated,” which was a hit at the South by Southwest festival in March and wowed crowds at the Toronto Film Festival last week. A football documentary about a black high school in Memphis, Tenn., the movie is getting a release from Weinstein Co. and has a solid shot at a doc nomination. Martin would be only the second black director ever to be nominated in the documentary category.
But it's hardly just those films, or even race-themed movies in general, that could color in the Oscars. Steve McQueen, director of "Shame" (about a sex addict and dysfunctional sibling relationship, not about race at all), generated buzz at early fall film festivals and is shaping up as a strong contender this season. If the sophomore filmmaker lands the nomination, he would become only the third black director to ever be nominated.
(Asked about the subject of race and the Oscars in an interview with 24 Frames, McQueen said he wanted to think about it a little more before answering and would get back to us later in the season. The BAFTA winner did note that he believed racism, both in the entertainment business and society at large, was far worse in his native Britain than the United States.)
Joining these Oscar hopefuls is director Dee Rees and the actors of "Pariah," a favorite from this past year's Sundance Film Festival that features an almost entirely black cast and deals as much with themes of sexuality as with race. Focus Features is releasing the micro-indie and is expected to give it an awards push.
Davis may also have a shot at a supporting actress nomination with her part in Stephen Daldry's much-anticipated (though so far unseen) 9/11-themed literary adaptation "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."
At a time when black actors say there's a dearth of meaty parts, it's hard not to find at least some encouragement in all of this. A new class of black actors is getting a bit more of a toehold in prestige movies -- witness Davis springboarding to these parts from her role in "Doubt" a few years back.
Hollywood still makes fewer serious movies than it has in a long time, and minorities struggle to land parts in those films. But the early indications, at least, are that the Oscars this year look a little less like the rest of Hollywood and a bit more like the real world.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in "The Help." Credit: DreamWorks