Black actors finally breaking through in Oscar nominations?

Movie Pass: "Hidden Figures"_00001517
Movie Pass: "Hidden Figures"_00001517

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Story highlights

  • Gene Seymour: Oscar nominations show diversity of content and talent in today's films
  • Even in Trump era, there's too much product out there for audiences to ignore, he says

Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)This much is certain: The #OscarSoWhite tag, all over the cultural map at this time a year ago, no longer applies.

Diversity of content and talent were widespread enough in the pool of potential Oscar nominees that when it came time to choose who'd get the nod, it had become #Oscarsnotsowhite after all -- though, for accuracy's sake, I'd prefer #Oscarsnotsowhite as usual for the time being ("La-la Land's" 14 nominations notwithstanding).
Hash tags can't always tell the whole story, can they?
    That story? The increasingly strong presence of great-to-interesting movies by and about African-Americans within the last year. Six black actors were nominated for Oscars, for one thing. And just this month, for another, the strongest performing feature at America's multiplexes, in terms of box-office appeal, has arguably been "Hidden Figures," a movie celebrating the accomplishments of three black women mathematicians (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) who broke ground during the early 1960s in both the space race and civil rights. (It drew nods for best picture and best supporting actress, for Spencer.)
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    Moreover, this year's more prominent Academy Award contenders include "Moonlight" -- Barry Jenkins' ruminative, erotically charged exploration of a young black man's passage from at-risk pre-adolescence to criminal adulthood (eight nominations) -- and "Fences," an adaptation of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning stage drama, directed by and starring Denzel Washington (nominated for best picture, best actor and best actress in a supporting role).
    Alongside these movies, "The Birth of a Nation," Nate Parker's version of Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion, was forecast at last year's Sundance Film Festival to be one of the year's more consequential and controversial films. The controversy proved to be more about a rape trial in director-star Parker's and his co-writer's off-screen past. (Parker was acquitted, and writer Jean McGianni Celestin's conviction later overturned.) The resultant publicity was blamed for the movie's poor showing at the box office, despite mostly favorable reviews, and its snub by the academy.
    Just the same, the mere fact that movies such as "Birth" are being greenlit and widely distributed seemed to enhance the growing presence of minorities both onscreen and behind the scenes. Not just different stories, but different perspectives are more welcome in this expanding universe. (We'll get to the striking dearth of female directors, evident once again in this year's nominees, another time.)
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    It wouldn't be out of place to suggest that the relative abundance of such "product" on big screens -- along with greater diversity represented in literature, television and beyond -- may well have resulted from the election of the nation's first African-American president and the widening space for greater understanding and dialogue it represented.
    But Barack Obama is no longer president. And with his departure and the election of Donald Trump, the success of a movie such as "Hidden Figures" co-exists with new fears of a cultural atmosphere less welcoming to more racially diverse movies. It's far too soon to tell whether artists and producers under a Trump presidency will be inclined to hold back on such material or continue the momentum. My own money's on the latter, especially if the money still comes in and reviewers still support the movies.
    Coming-of-age drama 'Moonlight' shines
    Coming-of-age drama 'Moonlight' shines

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    To put things more simply, there is now too much product out there for audiences to ignore, especially when Hollywood seems headed for an era when blockbusters -- save for existing tent-pole franchises such as "Star Wars" movies and superheroes from the DC and Marvel "Universes" -- aren't going to set the pace for the industry as they once did.
    And because the Academy Awards are conferred by those in the industry, the results give us possible clues to what everybody from producers, directors and writers to actors, art directors and sound engineers believe will, or should, happen next in their professional lives.
    My guess? An art movie such as "Moonlight," whatever its graces and gifts, won't fulfill this mandate as emphatically as, oh, let's say a bright, lilting musical comedy about ambitious, romantic young artists in Los Angeles seeking both fame and fulfillment. "La La Land" is exactly the kind of movie that tells Hollywood what it likes most about itself and as such counts as an early favorite for best picture -- and much else.
    We'll see soon enough.