The Oscar Race
From Moonlight to Lion, fall film festivals introduce possible awards contenders with diverse casts.
Ready or not, the awards season is well underway, with the prominent Fall film festivals unveiling their Oscar hopefuls one after another. The 73rd edition of the Venice Film Festival has already wrapped, as did the 43rd Telluride Film Festival that took place over the Labor Day weekend. And the still ongoing Toronto International Film Festival – which we’re covering extensively – is continuing to offer further clues about the long few months ahead that will end on Oscar night in late February.
Recapping last year’s Oscar season – which was permanently marked by the #OscarsSoWhite controversy with an all-white line up of acting nominees second year in a row – I had noted that things seem a little bit better in the upcoming year, when it comes to diversity in front of the camera. After all, the main problem last year (as in most years) was the fact that we only had Creed (a very late entry into the season) and Straight Outta Compton that could’ve feasibly grabbed nominations for actors of color. (Hence, I think #HollywoodSoWhite is a much better hashtag/point of focus that underlines the systemic problem in an industry that creates limited opportunities for artists of color.) But this year, we thankfully have more films that center around a non-white hero or heroine, launching into the race early on from various festivals and earning respectable to great reviews.
Sure, it all started in Sundance, with the now controversy-stricken The Birth of a Nation. When Nate Parker’s powerhouse film about the Nat Turner-led slave rebellion of 1831 premiered in Park City on the heels of the just-announced Oscar nominations, it brought the crowd up to its feet, even before the film started, in euphoric anticipation. Fox Searchlight bought the film for a record-breaking figure following its rousing reception, clearly with an eye towards the Oscar season. That was well before Nate Parker’s 17-year-old rape case resurfaced (he was fully acquitted from all charges, while his co-writer Jean Celestin served time) and subsequently tainted the film’s trajectory. The awards/box office future of The Birth of a Nation is currently uncertain, though reports from TIFF signal audiences might be willing to give the film a chance. (Here, Stephanie Zacharek, who likes the film a lot less than I did, makes a great case as to why they should.) Whether The Academy will embrace the film or not remains to be seen, but I don’t think Oscar nods are completely out of question at this point.
Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ masterful and gracefully affecting Moonlight, which premiered (and I got to see) in Telluride and later on reinforced its place in the season at TIFF to unanimously stellar reviews, is a title we will hear about a lot in the coming months. Headed to the prestigious New York Film Festival next, the A24-distributed Moonlight tells the story of a Florida gay black man’s coming of age in a dysfunctional home and heartbreaking journey through life in three chapters. The film is likely to score nominations across the board, including in Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay (it is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”) and Acting categories, particularly for Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris in supporting roles.
Among season’s other offerings, two films about true stories of interracial marriage stand out. Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ Cannes-hailer Loving (Focus Features) – telling the true story of a couple that stood up against Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law in late-50s – is generating a growing buzz for its lead actress Ruth Negga. Meanwhile Amma Asante’s well-reviewed TIFF premiere A United Kingdom — on the marriage of Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana with a white woman – presents a long-shot opportunity to its lead David Oyelowo (who was notably snubbed for Selma at the Oscars) if the film can find timely distribution in the US. Mira Nair’s disarmingly amiable and vibrantly real Queen of Katwe, another David Oyelowo-starrer, represents a more likely possibility (albeit, still a long shot) for the actor in the role of a chess coach, as well as for the 12 Years A Slave Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, in the role of the mother of a Ugandan chess prodigy (played by Madina Nalwanga, who should also be in the conversation.)
A somewhat of a surprise break into the season, The Weinstein Company’s Garth Davis-directed Lion is said to bring festival audiences to tears (the film recently premiered at TIFF) with the story of an adopted man looking for his biological parents and might consequently push Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel into the race.
Among the titles that no one has yet seen, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox) recently unveiled clips to a select group of journalists at TIFF. Originally slated for a Martin Luther King-day release in January, this film – about a team of female mathematicians who help NASA successfully launch space programs – could move up its release date in response to the positive TIFF buzz and push both Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer as contenders in the upcoming race. Finally Paramount Pictures’ Denzel Washington vehicle Fences (which he both directed and stars in) follows a 1950s father’s struggle in a racially segregated America and could prove to be a contender in various categories, including Acting for Washington and Viola Davis.
Naturally, most of these informed guesses are based on the word out of film festivals and it’s still way too early in the season to make definitive calls. Here’s the main takeaway for now though: we hopefully won’t be looking at another wall-to-wall white line up of Oscar nominees come January.