Editor’s Note: 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 solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
An African king broke the superhero barrier for a best picture nomination while nods for producing, directing, cinematography and original screenplay all went to the same Mexican director. And for the first time ever, an African-American was nominated for an Oscar in production design.
The Academy Awards were asked for more diversity and this year’s set of nominations made up as variegated a mosaic as this proud old competition has ever tried to assemble. It may not have been as timely or as resounding as those who three years before first posted “#Oscarsowhite” might have wanted. But the effort is at least apparent – and also significant when framed against the stress test present-day America is undergoing on social and political fronts.
They could still do better, though. Especially with women directors. Off the top of my head, I would have thought Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”), Josie Rourke (“Mary, Queen of Scots”) or Tamara Jenkins ("Private Life”) would have been caught within the academy’s frequency. Nice work, though, on including Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s “RBG” (a CNNFIlms doc) among best documentary feature nominees.
But they still can’t decide who’s going to host the show, if anybody, when it airs February 24. (We’ll get to that later.)
For now, let’s hear it for both “Roma,” Alfonso Cuaron’s poignant and transfixing childhood reverie, and “The Favourite,” Yorgus Lathimos’ lavish and witty 18th-century comedy of manners, which led all comers with 10 nominations each (!!), including best director and best picture.
Bradley Cooper’s soulful update of “A Star is Born” received eight nominations including lead acting nods for both Cooper and Lady Gaga. Cooper was snubbed for the directing competition, but Adam McKay (“Vice”), Pawel Pawlikowski (“Cold War”) and Spike Lee ("BlacKkKlansman”) were not.
As expected, “Black Panther,” the mega-hit Marvel Comics superhero epic, continued its groundbreaking path through the film industry by receiving a best picture nomination. No other superhero movie, not even the first Superman feature back in 1978, had been deemed worthy of nominations beyond those related to technical achievement. Among “Panther’s” other six nominations were for production design, in which category Hannah Beachler became the first African-American nominee in the academy’s history.
Yet there were just as many Oscar pundits who believed “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the critically-acclaimed adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel – written and directed by Barry Jenkins (2017 best picture winner “Moonlight”) – would get more than the three nominations it received: best adapted screenplay, best original score and best supporting actress (Regina King).
Meanwhile, Cuaron, who won two Oscars four years ago for directing and editing “Gravity,” made history of his own by receiving a record-tying four personal nominations in the same year for the same film. Had he received a nomination for editing (as many had expected), Cuaron would have broken the record shared by Warren Beatty (“Heaven Can Wait,” “Reds”), Alan Mencken (“Beauty and the Beast”) and the Coen brothers ("No Country for Old Men”).
If there was a surprise winner yesterday it was the streaming giant Netflix, which released both “Roma” and the Coen brothers’ droll western pastiche, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” The latter also received three nominations, including best song (“When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings”).
Here’s another surprise: No clear favorite could be detected in this group beyond, perhaps, “Roma” for best foreign-language film – and even that could be pressed hard by “Cold War,” another critically lauded and gorgeously filmed black-and-white elegy.
Yes, “Green Book” already won top prize from the Producers Guild of America, and that would usually cement its front-runner status among other best picture nominees. But however much its feel-good-odd-couple vibe has been a panacea for audiences whose nerves have been rubbed raw by present-day racial tension, such sidebar controversies as complaints about the movie’s depiction of the late Don Shirley – the black pianist portrayed by supporting actor nominee Mahershala Ali – from Shirley’s family could wear away its lead.
Now about that hosting business…
Here’s a modest suggestion: How about Kumail Nanjiani and Tracee Ellis Ross? Nanjiani, a co-star on HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and co-writer of “The Big Sick,” and Ross, who plays Bow on ABC’s “black-ish,” announced the nominations early Tuesday morning with humor, grace and, given that they gave everybody’s name and movie (and nailed the pronunciations, by the way), forbearance.
Add whatever boxes you want checked under “diversity” and I’d say the Oscars have a winning pair. If they’ll have them, that is.