Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
By Terrance Turner
March 15, 2021
Nominations for this year’s Academy Awards were announced this morning. In a 7 AM ceremony, actor & singer Nick Jonas and his wife, actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas, presented the nominees. As so often this year, the roster contains some surprising inclusions and several glaring exclusions. But the headline is that nine actors of color earned Academy Award nominations — the most ever in that arena.
Perhaps most surprising is the race for Actor in a Supporting Role, dominated by two films about unrest and civil rights in Chicago. Sacha Baron Cohen is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of activist Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago Seven. The film is based on a true story. According to People, “The Netflix film is based on the trial of eight anti-Vietnam War protestors — Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, John Froines and Bobby Seale — who were charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting the riots that erupted at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.”
According to the Chicago Tribune, the trial was initially supposed to involve all eight men. But after being informed he could not have a lawyer of his choice, Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale was excluded. “Seale, after loudly disrupting the trial when he could not have the lawyer of his choice, was at first bound and gagged in the courtroom and then severed from the case for a later trial, which never occurred,” the Tribune says. (Actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen plays Seale in the film.) Cohen plays Abbie Hoffman, the leader of the Youth International Movement (or “Yippies”), who suggested a night of mass fornication during the convention and was arrested for public indecency.
Also nominated for Best Supporting Actor is actor Daniel Kaluuya, for his work in “Judas and the Black Messiah”. Nominated against him in that category is actor LaKeith Stanfield, his co-star. Stanfield plays William O’Neal, who was arrested for being a car thief. He was offered a plea deal by the FBI: instead of serving time, he could infiltrate the Black Panther Party (a target of the FBI) and provide information on its dynamic leader Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya). O’Neal took the deal.
According to the Chicago Reader, “O’Neal was a Panther insider to the point where he was in charge of security for Hampton and possessed keys to Panther headquarters and safe houses, he was at the same time serving as an informant for the FBI. Among the information the teenaged O’Neal fed his FBI contact was the floor plan of Hampton’s west-side apartment.” That led to an FBI raid that killed Hampton at age 21.
Kaluuya’s performance as Hampton drew raves from critics: Entertainment Weekly wrote that “Kaluuya — alternately raw, tender, and incendiary — duly electrifies every scene he’s in.” The Austin Chronicle called it “the best performance of his career.” The L.A. Times said that “you can’t take your eyes of Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton,” calling him “an actor of boundless charisma and versatility.”
Leslie Odom, Jr. is also a contender in this category for playing Sam Cooke in “One Night in Miami”. The film, directed by actress Regina King, dramatizes a 1964 meeting between Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali. The fateful encounter happened as Ali was preparing for a fight; he knocked out Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. (Odom is also nominated for Best Original Song, for a song from the film that he co-wrote.)
The Best Supporting Actress category is also notable. Glenn Close is nominated (again) for her work in “Hillbilly Elegy”, joining Maria Bakalova (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”), Amanda Seyfried (“Mank”) and Olivia Colman (“The Father”). But the headline is actress Yuh-Jung Youn, nominated for “Minari” — a film about a Korean family who moves to Arkansas in search of the “American Dream”. According to Variety, Youn is the first Korean ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar.
For Best Actress, the nominees are historic. Viola Davis is nominated for playing the title role in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (based on the play by August Wilson). This is her fourth Academy Award nomination — the most ever by a Black actress. (She was previously nominated best supporting actress for “Fences” and “Doubt” and as best actress for “The Help”.) This also makes her the first Black woman to be nominated twice for best actress. Viola Davis is the most nominated Black actress in history.
Joining her in that category is singer Andra Day, nominated for her performance in the titular role in Lee Daniels’ “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”. This is her first nomination for her first film! Other nominees include Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”), Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”), and Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”).
The race for Best Actor is a stunner. Per Variety, it’s the first time in Oscar history that the nominees haven’t been majority-white. Steven Yeun (nominated for “Minari”) is the first Asian American ever nominated for best actor in a leading role. Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”) is the first actor of Pakistani descent ever nominated for an Academy Award. (He’s also the first Muslim to compete for Best Actor.) And sadly, Chadwick Boseman becomes the first actor of color to receive a posthumous nomination (for “Ma Rainey”). Gary Oldman (“Mank”) and Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”) round out the nominees.
In yet another historic first, two women are nominated for Best Director. Chloe Zhao becomes the first Asian woman ever in this category for her feature film “Nomadland.” It follows a woman who, after losing her job and husband, purchases a van and travels the American West. Also nominated for Best Director is Emerald Fennell, for “Promising Young Woman”, about a woman who avenges the rape of her friend. Rounding out the category are Thomas Vinterberg (for “Another Round”), David Fincher (for “Mank”, a story about the making of the 1941 classic “Citizen Kane”), and Lee Isaac Chung, who directed “Minari”.
In the Best Picture category, “Judas and the Black Messiah” makes history as the first film by an all-Black production team to be nominated for Best Picture. (One of the film’s producers is Ryan Coogler, who directed “Black Panther”.) As mentioned previously, two of the lead nominees for Best Picture concern 1960s political unrest in Chicago — “Judas” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” In “The Father”, Anthony Hopkins plays a man struggling to accept his dementia diagnosis and the ensuing memory loss, even as his daughter begins taking care of him. “Sound of Metal” follows a heavy-metal drummer beginning to lose his hearing.