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A Librarian Takes on Oscars 2021: The Diversity We Deserve (From the Year That We Didn't)
by
Posted On March 23, 2021
The 2021 Oscar nominations are here, and boy, do we have some things to talk about. As the dust settled on the 2020 Oscars ceremony, little did we know that the films of the year ahead were going to be seen from the comfort of our homes, or not at all, because of a global pandemic. Despite not being able to go to theaters for risk of potential death, 2020 managed to deliver countless truly great films, some of which were nominated by the mostly older, white male panel of Oscar voters for awards.

The Father movie poster

Although the demographics of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences remain homogenous—after years of “growth” for which the Academy feels it deserves a pat on the back, only 33% of voters are women, and only 19% are members of racial or ethnic minorities—the 2021 nominees are surprisingly diverse. I want to believe this is because voters are finally opening themselves up to appreciate and nominate films, actors, directors, and specialists in the movie business that reflect the greatness and truth of our multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic society. What I actually believe is that viewers and activists are being patronized, and creators are being tokenized by the Academy. Maybe it’s the cynic in me. I hope I am wrong.

Judas and the Black Messiah movie poster

On to the nominees. There are some deserved accolades, some snubs, some categories that are truly up in the air, and some locks. Let’s dig into them.

Best Director and Best Actress

I hope I do not jinx her by writing this, but I believe Chloe Zhao, one of only seven women in 92 years to be nominated for Best Director, will win the award. Two women (Zhao and Emerald Fennell) were nominated this year, which is a first, with Zhao being the first woman of color ever nominated in the category. The Academy had the opportunity to decimate a barrier by nominating three enormously deserving women directors this year, but chose to favor only two, leaving everyone wondering why Regina King was left to dangle on the remnants of the broken ceiling.

Mank movie poster

I’m hopeful the Academy will make the right choice with Zhao as Best Director. Her fingerprints cover every inch of Nomadland, making her presence on the screen as evident as that of her protagonist, Fern, who is played by Frances McDormand.

To the surprise of exactly no one, McDormand was nominated for her sixth total Oscar and third for lead actress. She has won both previous nominations in the category, and although this role is as moving and well-acted as those of her previous wins, I do not believe she will be going home with the statue this time.

The Best Actress in a Leading Role category is loaded, combining McDormand with the likes of the most nominated Black actress of all time, Viola Davis, two-time nominee Carey Mulligan, and breakthrough performances by Vanessa Kirby and Andra Day. Day won the Golden Globe (to the surprise of many), but I don’t think she will take home the Oscar. My pick is either Kirby or Mulligan for their defining portraits of complex women—one in the aftermath of a botched home birth and the other bringing life to the violent fantasies of every woman who has been taken advantage of by a man (see: the majority of women on planet Earth).

Minari movie poster

Best Supporting 

The Best Supporting categories are interesting, with both being dominated by films that do not have lead actresses or actors nominated. The Best Actress in a Supporting Role category features awards darling Olivia Colman (The Father), newcomer Maria Bakalova (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm), Korean film legend Yuh-Jung Youn (Minari), familiar face Amanda Seyfried (Mank), and always-the-nominee-never-the-winner Glenn Close (Hillbilly Elegy).

Nomadland movie poster

The Golden Globe winner for the drama category, Jodie Foster, was not even nominated. The winner of the Golden Globes’ comedic counterpart was Bakalova, and it is hard to imagine Academy voters will find her more deserving than the other four, regardless of her role in the news-making Rudy Giuliani exposé. The real story in this category is the snub of Ellen Burstyn, who deserved to be the oldest person ever to win an acting award. Her performance alongside Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman was special.

Daniel Kaluuya is a lock for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. In a category rightfully dominated by knock-your-socks-off performances by people of color, Kaluuya’s portrayal of Black Panther Fred Hampton rises to the top. The first time he is seen on screen, it is obvious how much Kaluuya disappears into the role of Hampton. With his stocky frame and the way he walks, talks, and inspires, Hampton is reincarnated through Kaluuya’s eyes.

Promising Young Woman movie poster

Fellow Judas and the Black Messiah nominee LaKeith Stanfield (the Judas to Kaluuya’s Messiah) is also finally getting his time in the limelight after a series of startling performances, including another opposite Kaluuya in the Oscar-winning Get Out. Leslie Odom Jr.’s star is only going to burn brighter after his ear-seducing turn as Sam Cooke in the criminally under-nominated One Night in Miami.

Best Picture

Best Picture is the most confusing category of the bunch this year. The Academy can nominate up to 10 films and chose to only select eight, leaving multiple fantastic films off the table for consideration, including One Night in Miami and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In a year featuring the most diverse slate of acting nominees of all time, the Best Picture category includes only three films with non-white leads (Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari, and Sound of Metal).

Sound of Metal movie poster

In a year like 2020, it is not surprising that most of these films were produced by streaming giants Netflix, HBO Max, and Amazon Prime; have not even come out for home viewing yet (looking at you, The Father); or are available to rent at home for a hefty price tag in an attempt to recoup money that would have been made in theaters. The streamers are here to stay, and they are bringing their A game. Although I cannot assess how the 2021 Oscar nominees circulated in the library, since most libraries, mine included, were closed for the lion’s share of 2020, my hope remains that the streamers release their titles on DVD so everyone can experience these films, including the one that is likely to win Best Picture, Nomadland.

I agree with the overwhelming critical opinion of Nomadland as Best Picture. The cast is made up of real people who play fictitious versions of themselves in the book-to-screen adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s 2017 look into what life was like for older Americans who became transient workers during the fallout of the Great Recession. McDormand brings the thick emotion of the ensemble together in her restrained portrayal of a woman who eats Christmas dinner alone in a van outside her seasonal Amazon factory job, yet is able to remain hopeful she will continue down the road to better tomorrows.

Best Actor

Trial of the Chicago Seven movie poster

The Best Actor in a Leading Role category is not majority-white for the first time in its history. Steven Yeun (Minari) is the first Asian American man to score a nomination, and Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal) became the first man of Pakistani descent to be recognized in an acting category. Although they both gave career-enhancing performances, which have undoubtedly permanently launched them onto the national film stage, this category is a lock for Chadwick Boseman.

Boseman tragically died at age 43 on Aug. 28, 2020, after a long and largely unseen battle with colon cancer. The Black Panther star did not let many people outside of his family know about his diagnosis, making his sudden death a surprise not only to fans, but also to his Marvel and cinematic families.

Boseman is nominated for his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a Jazz Age tale adapted from the August Wilson play and one of 10 plays Denzel Washington has committed to bringing to the screen. Boseman won the Golden Globe for the role, with his wife solemnly and gracefully accepting the award on his behalf. In a time when so many lives—more than 540,000 in the U.S. alone—have been heartbreakingly cut short by COVID-19, Boseman’s win in this category will be a reminder of all that we collectively lost, as well as the beauty that remains in our legacy even after we are gone.

In the words of Bob Wells from Nomadland, it’s never goodbye—just “see you down the road.”


Movie posters come from IMDb.


Jessica Hilburn is the executive director of Benson Memorial Library in Titusville, Pa. She is a historian and the former head of adult services and reference. She enjoys popular culture in libraries, politics, true crime, audiobooks, and is passionate about advocating for rural communities and libraries, as well as broadband equity as a 2020 KINBER TGL Fellow. Her writing has been published by Information Today, Inc.; ABC-CLIO/Libraries Unlimited; Library JournalThe Oilfield Journal; and The History Press (which published her book, Hidden History of Northwestern Pennsylvania).

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