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2 years after #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy’s diversity efforts seem to be working — slowly

The 2018 nominees show a more diverse slate than would have been expected a few years ago, but there’s still work to be done.

The 33rd Santa Barbara International Film Festival - Outstanding Directors Award Sponsored by The Hollywood Reporter
Jordan Peele (director of Get Out) and Greta Gerwig (director of Lady Bird) are, respectively, only the fifth black director and fifth woman nominated for Best Directing at the Oscars.
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SBIFF
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

It’s almost time for one of my favorite nights of the year: the Oscars. As a young kid, I first came to realize that movies could be more than simple entertainment through scanning lists of Oscar winners, and even if many of those winners ultimately let me down when I watched them, I still love the idea of celebrating the best in film — whatever that means to the Academy in any given year.

So with the 2018 ceremony now upon us, I’ve devoted the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, to a regular Oscar spectacular. I even talked to two of this year’s nominees, Julian Slater (nominated for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing for Baby Driver) and Tatiana Riegel (nominated for Film Editing for I, Tonya). I learned a lot from each — about film craft, sure, but also about what it’s like to be an Oscar nominee and to get thrown into the headlong rush of awards season.

But before interviewing Slater and Riegel, I wanted to discuss the year’s slate of nominees with Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson. One of the things the two of us are most excited about as we head into the 2018 Oscars is the way the Academy’s efforts to diversify its membership, undertaken in 2016 after two straight years of no nominees of color in the four acting categories, appear to be bearing fruit — in terms of not just who is nominated but what kinds of films are nominated.

In particular, it’s hard to imagine the less diverse Academy of a couple of years ago nominating something like the horror-comedy Get Out, a movie released all the way back in February 2017.

Here’s a short excerpt of our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Todd VanDerWerff

Of all of the nominations, what was the happiest surprise for you of the things that were nominated?

Alissa Wilkinson

I got really excited about the Best Director slate. The five nominees are Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk, Jordan Peele for Get Out, Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird, Paul Thomas Anderson for Phantom Thread, and Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water. One thing that made me really happy about this is that only one of those people has ever been nominated in this category before, which is Anderson, and he certainly deserves to be in it again this time around for Phantom Thread.

The 33rd Santa Barbara International Film Festival - Outstanding Directors Award Sponsored by The Hollywood Reporter
From left: Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig, Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, and Guillermo del Toro are the 2018 Best Directing nominees.
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SBIFF

On top of that, it’s an interestingly diverse category. There’s a woman, which is somewhat rare for the Oscars. Jordan Peele is a black director. That’s a pretty rare category for black directors to have been nominated in. Del Toro is a Mexican director.

So there’s a lot of things going on in that category that make me hopeful about the direction the Academy is heading in, and I also think everybody in that category deserves to be in it.

Todd VanDerWerff

Greta Gerwig is only the fifth woman nominated for Best Director, and Jordan Peele is only the fifth black person nominated for Best Director. That’s kind of crazy that it’s taken this long for the Academy to do that. I think it’s a good sign that their diversity initiatives are doing what they hoped they would. After all, #OscarsSoWhite was just a couple of years ago.

Alissa Wilkinson

It certainly seems like it. I think a lot of us were a little concerned this year that in the acting categories, we would end up with entirely white nominees again, and that didn’t wind up happening. [Actors of color are nominated in two of the evening’s four acting categories.]

I think maybe even more broadly, we’re seeing an interest in lots of different kinds of projects being nominated for Best Picture. This is a really, really wide net that they’ve cast. I don’t think there were any surprises about movies being nominated for Best Picture, but it’s good to see things that are sort of commercial and not as obvious as something like The Post or Darkest Hour, which are both historical dramas that are pretty much crowd pleasers.

But there’s other smaller, weirder films, like Phantom Thread, even Dunkirk I wouldn’t call it a small film, but it’s not one that I think you would necessarily know was going to be a Best Picture nominee from the start. And Get Out; I’m thrilled that movie has persisted all year, because it really says something about the imagination of the Academy shifting.

What could a Best Picture look like? Could it be a comedy-horror film that came out in February and is biting social satire? And can that live alongside something like The Shape of Water, which is basically a fantasy romance between a woman and a fish-man?

You can never really tell from one year, but last year was a shocker too, for a lot of people, with Moonlight winning. So maybe we’re actually seeing some trends toward people with more diverse life experiences and tastes and interests all pitching in and more fully representing the year in film, rather than the more monolithic thing that the Academy used to be.

For more with Alissa — including more discussion of Oscar diversity and both of our personal picks for Best Picture (as well as our picks for our least favorite nominees) — listen to the full episode. Then after she steps out, stick around for interviews with Baby Driver’s Slater and I, Tonya’s Riegel. At the very least, you’ll learn what the difference between Sound Mixing and Sound Editing is!

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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