Oscars 2018 Analysis: Voters Send Clear Message on Diversity in Race and Gender

Symbolism mattered enormously this year, and the Academy sent a message about inclusion

The moment of truth at Oscar nominations came at about 5:45 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, when Andy Serkis and Tiffany Haddish read off the nominees chosen by the Academy’s stubborn, opinionated Directors Branch, which loves to confuse people who think they know the Oscars.

And in a year that finds Hollywood grappling with the opportunities long denied to women and to minorities, the directors included both a woman, Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), and a black man, Jordan Peele (“Get Out”), in its list of five nominees.

She was only the fifth woman nominated for directing in the 90-year history of the Oscars; he was only the fifth black man. It wasn’t the first time the Directors Branch had nominated a woman and a black man in the same year — the 2009 nominees included Kathryn Bigelow, who won, and “Precious” filmmaker Lee Daniels — but in the current climate, it felt huge, just as it had when the Directors Guild had nominated both Gerwig and Peele on January 11.

In the year that saw the rise of #TimesUp and could have tilted toward a replay of #OscarsSoWhite, the choice made by the Academy’s directors was a huge statement at a time when, like it or not, the Oscar nominations needed to make a statement.

This year was never going to be just a matter of tallying up the nominations and figuring out front runners. On the heels of the Academy’s concerted campaign to become more diverse and in the aftermath of the movement that swept Hollywood and the country in the wake of accusations against Harvey Weinstein and then many others, the big question was what message the 7,000-plus Academy voters were going to send about gender and race, diversity and inclusion.

It’s not fair to saddle a batch of movie awards with that kind of import — but at a time of crisis, it’s unavoidable. So the success of “Get Out” and “Mudbound” were going to deliver a verdict on how accepting the Academy is of black filmmakers (never mind that resistance to the latter film likely had more to do with anti-Netflix bias than racial issues).

And with Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” and Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father” slipping out of the awards conversation, the Academy’s response to the #TimesUp movement was going to hinge on how much voters liked “Lady Bird.”

And a year after the surprise Best Picture win for “Moonlight,” the Academy’s continued acceptance of LGBT themes was going to depend on whether or not voters included “Call Me by Your Name” in the Best Picture field.

That’s too much baggage to put on those three movies, to be sure. But symbolism mattered enormously this year, and the Academy sent an inclusive message not only with the directing nominations, but by putting Octavia Spencer, Mary J. Blige, Denzel Washington and Daniel Kaluuya in the acting races, getting a 20 percent nonwhite representation in categories that could have looked much whiter than that.

Given the field of movies they had to work with, that was probably enough to avoid embarrassment. Other notable nominations: the cinematography nod for Rachel Morrison for “Mudbound,” making her the first woman ever nominated in the category; the Best Foreign Language Film recognition of “On Body and Soul” from Hungary’s Ildikó Enyedi, the only female director with a film on the shortlist; and the documentary-feature nod for “Strong Island” director Yance Ford, a transgender man.

Of course, the other side of the Oscar nominations are all about counting up the nominations and figuring out the frontrunners — and on that count, “The Shape of Water” did everything it needed to do and then some.

Guillermo del Toro’s rapturous fantasy land by far the most nominations, 13, to eight for the runner-up, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” It landed slots in all of the categories thought to be essential for a true Best Picture contender: director, screenplay, cinematography and film editing.

And more to the point, the films that are thought to be its main competitors all fell short in some of those areas. “Lady Bird” landed five nominations and “Get Out” got four, but they were bypassed in cinematography and, crucially, in film editing.

Even more damaging, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” writer-director Martin McDonagh was left out in the director race. If Peele or Gerwig had been overlooked in that category, you could see the omission becoming the launching pad for a campaign that could push the film itself into the winner’s circle, the same way that the Directors Branch’s failure to nominate Ben Affleck for “Argo” helped engender sympathy and might have actually helped his film win Best Picture.

But McDonagh and his tough, divisive black comedy are hardly ripe for a sympathy vote — which means that even though his film won the SAG ensemble award on Sunday, its chances of winning Best Picture have now taken a serious hit.

So all signs now point to “The Shape of Water,” albeit in the same way that all signs were pointing to “La La Land” last year. A race that has been interesting and unsettled since it kicked off in September is going to remain that way a while longer.

Meanwhile, an awards show that will inevitably become a flashpoint for various controversies took a big step toward staving off at least some of those potential controversies — and it did so with a decent number of nominees of color, with Rachel Morrison and Yance Ford and Ildikó Enyedi, and with the choices of the often-confounding Directors Branch.

It might be pathetic that only five women and five black men have been nominated for Oscars for directing, but that’s one more than last year on both counts. It feels, in a small but real way, like progress.

And at this stage in our history and this point in our country and our culture, we take victories wherever we can find them — even in early-morning wake-up calls from Hollywood.