Diversity season again

Chloé Zhao is the first Asian woman likely to be nominated in the Best Director category for Nomadland, says Christopher Silvester

On Cinema

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


With most cinemas in the United States and Europe closed, and the major studios holding back most of their 2020 releases until the end of next year, including Steven Spielberg’s remake of the musical West Side Story, we are entering an untypical awards season.

Because of the Covid pandemic, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has decided that it will host an in-person ceremony on 25 April, two months later than usual, and accordingly has extended the eligibility period for entries by two months (from 31 December, 2020, to 28 February 2021), which means a seven-month period of campaigning.

This year is an embarrassment of riches in terms of possible Best Picture candidates with African-American stories and directors

This year is an embarrassment of riches in terms of possible Best Picture candidates with African-American stories and directors. First up is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by George C. Wolfe, who is better known for his theatre direction, and produced by Denzel Washington.

The film is adapted from Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson’s play of the same name, set in Chicago in 1927, and is essentially a showcase for two superlative acting performances by Viola Davis, who plays “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey, and Chadwick Boseman, who plays impassioned young trumpeter Levee.

A first feature for actress and TV director Regina King, One Night in Miami, is adapted by Kemp Powers from his own stage play and portrays a fictional encounter between boxer Muhammad Ali, radical activist Malcolm X, pro football player Jim Brown, and soul singer Sam Cooke in a Miami hotel room following Ali’s surprise victory over Sonny Liston in February 1964. British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir takes the role of Malcolm X.

Then there is Judas and the Black Messiah, directed by Shaka King, which tells the story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the Chicago Black Panther and revolutionary socialist betrayed by FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) and assassinated in a police raid in December 1969. Of course, this is competing with The Trial of the Chicago 7, which depicts another episode from the same period in American radical history.

And finally there is The United States v. Billie Holiday, directed by Lee Daniels, previously nominated for Best Director for Precious (2009), and starring singer-song-writer Andra Day. Nobody has had sight of this yet and its release has been scheduled for the very end of the extended eligibility period.

Apart from these films, there are other tips to the diversity matrix. Supernova is a restrained weepie about a male homosexual couple, in which Colin Firth’s Sam watches Stanley Tucci’s Tusker descend into dementia. Both are possibilities in the acting categories.

What makes her work so remarkable is that she is able to get under the skin of America’s heartland

And the director of Nomadland, Chloé Zhao, is the first Asian woman likely to be nominated in the Best Director category. But what makes her work so remarkable is that she is able to get under the skin of America’s heartland, as evidenced by her Native American drama Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017),
about the dreams and broken lives of rodeo cowboys, of which Boston Globe critic Peter Keough wrote that it “achieves what cinema is capable of at its best: It reproduces a world with such acuteness, fidelity, and empathy that it transcends the mundane and touches on the universal.”

The Best Actor category is already thought to be a battle between pale, though definitely not stale, Anthony Hopkins for his role in The Father, Florian Zeller’s film from his own play about an elderly man experiencing the gradual deterioration of his faculties, and Chadwick Boseman, who died prematurely from complications of colon cancer, aged 43, in August 2019, for his role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Hopkins is hoping for his second Oscar (after Hannibal Lecter in 1991), but if Boseman receives a posthumous Oscar, he will be only the second leading actor to do so following Peter Finch for Network (1976), though Finch died after being nominated, not before. By the way, if you’ve never seen Boseman’s magnificent portrayal of soul singer James Brown in Get On Up (2014), you should definitely seek it out.

Best Actress is probably going to be a three-woman race between Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, Frances McDormand in Nomadland, and Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman (about the loss of a child in a home birth through botched midwifery, and the subsequent court case). But don’t ignore the possibility of Andra Day coming from the back of the field.

Once again we are about to witness the now-familiar battle for recognition between the traditional studios and the upstart streamers. Without a doubt, the streamers have had a good pandemic. They sustained us when cinemas were forced to close and the studios chose to postpone their big-ticket releases.

Although it offers plenty of guilty pleasures for cinephiles, Mank is probably too austere and recondite to win the ultimate prize

Will 2021 be the year when Netflix achieves its first Oscar for Best Picture (for The Trial of the Chicago 7 or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or Mank)? Or might Amazon Studios snatch the prize with One Night in Miami? Will it be The Father, a French-British co-production from Sony Pictures Classics? Or Nomadland, from Disney’s Searchlight Pictures?

Although it offers plenty of guilty pleasures for cinephiles, Mank is probably too austere and recondite to win the ultimate prize, so I think the real battle will be between The Trial of the Chicago 7, writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s well-crafted 1970 courtroom drama, with its crowd-pleasing, emotionally uplifting ending and its cluster of fine performances, and Nomadland, in which Fern (Frances McDormand) travels in a van through the American West after losing everything in the Great Recession and encounters similarly deracinated nomads.

Both films have launched their campaigns early in the season, with Nomadland becoming the first film ever to win the top awards at both the Venice and Toronto festivals, and The Trial being released in cinemas at the end of September and streamed the following month.

The Trial is a hymn of liberal self-congratulation in this year of the Fall of Trump, and that will surely energise some Academy members. But Nomadland seeks to understand the mindset of those who have been left behind. Another choice between libtards and deplorables.

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