The Oscars have never been known for diversity. For starters, the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences largely ignores films made outside the United States. Entire countries only submit one film for the Best Foreign Language category and, of all of those, only five are chosen as nominees. Sometimes foreign films break into the top categories, but it's rare.
Domestically, films made by people of color are just as neglected. African-American directors, actors and other crew, for example, are rarely declared winners on Hollywood's big night. In the 88-year history of the Academy Awards, four black men have won Best Actor and one black woman has won Best Actress.
The 2016 Oscars, held last February, honored the films of 2015, but failed to recognize any African-Americans in the acting categories. Somehow David Oyelowo's incredible turn as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma was left in the dust while solid, but unspectacular, performances from the likes of Matt Damon (The Martian) made the cut. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was born.
Social media exploded with outrage over the Oyelowo omission and others (Selma director Ava Duvernay seemed a shoo-in, as did the movie itself for Best Picture, neither happened). The Academy, one year removed from awarding 12 Years a Slave Best Picture in 2015, went into PR defense mode. Publicists told journalists the Academy voters weren't racist. Selma, and other films about minorities, simply weren't good enough last year. Stories emerged that Selma wasn't "historically accurate," as if that ever mattered before (looking at you, Braveheart and A Beautiful Mind).
Whether there was or wasn't racism in the hearts of the Academy members last year, no one can deny the Oscars are sorely in need of redemption. Both for 2015 and the past 88 years. Well, look no further than 2016 Academy voters. There are a slew of amazing movies made by and starring African-American talent you won't be able to deny. Here are the five films you'll most likely hear from on Oscar night 2017 as the Academy, hopefully, redeems itself a little. Maybe we'll get #OscarsSoBlack going this year:
Directed by Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Stephen Henderson,
Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney
Based on August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, Fences is a virtual lock for the top three major categories come Oscar night considering its impressive pedigree. Look for the adaptation, about an ex-baseball player-turned-garbage collector trying to do right by his family and failing, to be one of the year's best-reviewed films. Washington and Davis' performances are powerhouses.
Should contend for: Best Picture, Best Actor (Washington), Best Actress (Davis), Best Adapted Screenplay
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, Nick Kroll
Last year, I called Selma the new benchmark for Civil Rights films. I stand behind that statement, but Loving is right there with it and it's a much different kind of movie. Centered around Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who are arrested for getting married in 1958 Virginia, the movie is a quiet, understated look at how these regular folks fought for and won a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1967 that destroyed anti-miscegenation laws in the States. Both Edgerton and Negga are perfect.
Should contend for: Best Picture, Best Actor (Edgerton), Best Actress (Negga), Best Director (Nichols)
The Birth of a Nation
Directed by Nate Parker
Starring: Nate Parker, Aunjanue Ellis, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union, Colman Domingo
Despite the admittedly serious controversy surrounding Parker and his co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin that has destroyed the PR campaign for this film, The Birth of a Nation is too good to ignore come Oscar night. It's an account of Nat Turner's rebellion, the most famous slave revolt in U.S. history. Parker's film is uncompromising in its depiction of violence but it also has a Django Unchained-style theme of righteous hope that should lead to cheers. The performances in this film are special as well; Parker and King are stunning.
Should contend for: Best Picture, Best Actor (Parker), Best Supporting Actress (King)
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Starring: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders,
Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali
One of the best-reviewed films of the year, Moonlight is a major Oscar underdog since nobody has heard of it and even fewer have actually seen it. But if it gets out there and popular, watch out. Critics are already in love and many are touting it as a real contender. Barry Jenkins has made an intensely moving portrait of two gay men at three different stages of their lives, focusing intently on one as he struggles with his own identity, sexuality, and place in the world.
Should contend for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Ali) Best Supporting Actress (Harris), Best Original Screenplay
Directed by Ava DuVernay
DuVernay, the woman behind Selma, should return again to Oscar conversations at dinner parties for her latest film, 13th. The powerful documentary (available October 7 on Netflix) is an in-depth investigation into race-relations in the American criminal justice system. It presents the plague of mass incarceration as exhibit A in the case of "Does Slavery Still Exist in America?" This is one of the best-reviewed docs of the year so far. Look for the Academy to make it up to DuVernay for Selma by giving 13th a nod in the Best Documentary category.
Should contend for: Best Documentary - Feature
Other films about minorities that could contend: Hidden Figures, Queen of Katwe, The Fits, Southside With You