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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

The Best Actress Oscars Race Still Echoes #OscarsSoWhite

The 94th Academy Awards will air this Sunday, and there's a notable exclusion of Black talents.

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Image: Danny Moloshok (AP)

We’re mere days away from Hollywood’s biggest party, the 2022 Oscars, and I have a nagging issue with the highly competitive category of Best Actress. Once again, we have a crop of all-white talents at a time when there’s no shortage of Black contenders to level the playing field.

It’s been seven years since #OscarsSoWhite started trending, a movement that was created by inclusion consultant April Reign, went viral and unleashed a firestorm. And yet we’re still not so far off from the 2015 Oscar nominationsa collection of starkly white faces with hardly any color in sight. This year, the Best Actress nominees are notably missing some of the top performances of the year—namely ones by women of color. The overwhelmingly white nominees include Olivia Colman for The Lost Daughter, Nicole Kidman for Being the Ricardos, Kristen Stewart for Spencer, Jessica Chastain for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and Penelope Cruz for Madres Paralelas. 

It makes no sense that the Best Actress slot is missing a myriad of Black talents who should’ve been honored for their work in projects that are typically applauded by the Academy. These overlooked entries include stars from films like Passing, Respect, and The Harder They Fall. In Passing, a movie based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larson that bears the same name, director Rebecca Hall masterfully tackles the generational burden of African-Americans who, with their lighter skin complexions, lived a life where they passed as white.

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Ruth Negga is luminous as the light-skinned Clare Bellew, married to a white man who is unaware that his wife is Black. Her towering performance is complemented by Tessa Thompson’s haunting portrayal of Clare’s childhood friend, Irene Redfield. The film follows Irene’s seemingly blissful existence at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, is disrupted by a fateful encounter with someone she used to know. Both Negga and Thompson engage in a dance of unspoken tension that gives movement to the internal strife that each character grapples—a game that ends with us holding our breaths. You can’t walk away without visions of both actresses giving their acceptance speech at the Oscars.

And yet only the BAFTA’s, Britain’s version of the Oscars, dared to give Negga, Thompson and even Hall, who was snubbed in the Oscar’s Best Director category, their well-deserved flowers with nominations for Best Supporting Actress, Best Actress and Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.

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One could argue that perhaps the Academy is uncomfortable uplifting Black movies that come with an explainer breaking down the politics of how racism intersects with colorism.  

A less “explainable” snub is the icing out of previous Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson, who portrayed Aretha Franklin in Respect and was handpicked for the role by the Queen of Soul herself prior to her death in 2018. Reviews for the highly-anticipated biopic were admittedly mixed, with critics citing the film’s generic tones, but when it comes to Hudson’s theatrical display? That hit all the right notes. Hudson damn near brings the Queen herself back to life. Seems like the Academy missed an opportunity to pay homage to not one but surely to two generational greats.

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And what about Regina King’s kick ass performance in the delightfully campy offering The Harder They Fall? King, who snagged her first golden statue for Best Supporting Actress in 2019 for her work in the Barry Jenkins stunner If Beale Street Could Talk, brought a completely different disposition to the role of the hardened warrior “Treacherous” Trudy Smith. King is at her best when she plays characters who call the shots, which is on full display with her turn as Smith. King is a standout in the one-of-a-kind Western with an all-Black leading cast.

While historically we’ve seen some diversity with Best Actress, including Cynthia Erivo for Harriet in 2020, actress and singer Andra Day for The United States v. Billie Holiday, and even Negga for her role in 2017's Loving, the track record so far isn’t consistent. And that won’t ever change if white talents remain the default in one of the biggest Oscar categories. The Academy has to do better to normalize the rotation of Best Actress nominations to reflect the world we live in today. That includes not sidelining the stories and characters
who parse through complicated subject matter.

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Films like Passing and The Harder They Fall should be embraced and celebrated for their intricacies and mysteries, as well as how they approach race, not shoved aside in favor of more palatable fare that doesn’t pose a threat. Negga and Thompson, specifically, deserved to be feted for their uncanny ability to speak to each other without saying a word.

If the Academy has any investment in moving past #OscarsSoWhite, the solution is very simple: We need the most prominent categories to be... less white.