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How Judas and the Black Messiah’s two lead actors wound up with supporting actor Oscar nods

Both LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya got nominations. But shouldn’t one of them be in the Lead Actor category?

In an image from the film Judas and the Black Messiah, young Black Panthers stand wearing green jackets and black berets.
The two main stars of Judas and the Black Messiah were both nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars.
Glen Wilson/Warner Bros.
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.

One of the big surprises of the 2021 Oscar nominations was the success of Judas and the Black Messiah, Shaka King’s film about Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), a leader in the Black Panther Party, and his betrayal at the hands of William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield).

As you can probably guess from that cursory plot summary, O’Neal is the Judas and Hampton the Black Messiah of the film’s title. So when both Kaluuya and Stanfield were nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, it necessarily prompted some confusion as to who, exactly, they were supposed to be supporting.

To my mind, Stanfield is clearly the film’s lead. The movie stays focused on him throughout, and it’s mostly about O’Neal’s emotional journey and his thought processes as he makes the decisions that lead to Hampton’s death. But one could also argue that Kaluuya is the lead, as he plays a character who is effortlessly magnetic and who drives much of the story’s action (the usual role of a protagonist in a film). Plus, Hampton is the better-known historical figure.

And in similar cases throughout Oscar history — where an acclaimed film has a major character, arguably the film’s protagonist, who observes a famous historical figure — the actor playing the famous historical figure has usually been considered for Lead Actor, while the “observer” ends up in Supporting. In 2007, for instance, James McAvoy was the actor with the most screen time in The Last King of Scotland, but the Lead Actor nomination (and win) went to Forest Whitaker for playing Idi Amin. (McAvoy was unnominated.) And 2008’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford spends most of its time with Ford (played by Casey Affleck), even though James (Brad Pitt) is a far better-known historical figure. Nevertheless, Affleck got a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars. (Pitt was unnominated.)

But either Kaluuya or Stanfield must be the lead of Judas and the Black Messiah, right? How could they both possibly end up in the Supporting Actor race? Surely someone should have stopped this from happening!

There’s no way to know exactly what happened, because the Oscars keep their vote totals secret. But I think I have a best guess as to how we got here.

The Oscars’ nominations process allows an actor to receive votes in both of the acting categories they’re theoretically eligible for

Unlike television’s Emmy Awards, the Oscars don’t require performers to submit their names in contention for a specific category. A movie qualifies for the Oscars and is submitted by its studio for consideration, but after that, Oscar voters are mostly free to do as they please in nominating performers for the acting categories. If a consensus emerges among voters that both stars of Judas and the Black Messiah are supporting players, then that’s where they’ll end up nominated.

Warner Bros. campaigned for Stanfield to be nominated as the film’s lead and marketed Kaluuya as a supporting player, but the Academy is not bound to vote based on that PR campaign. And while voters usually do vote based on how a studio campaigns, they’ve been known to buck the system. Whale Rider’s Keisha Castle-Hughes was campaigned in the Supporting Actress category in 2004 but was ultimately nominated in Lead Actress, and The Reader’s Kate Winslet was campaigned for Supporting Actress in 2009 but ended up with a nomination — and then a win — in Lead Actress instead.

Still, as Awards Watch editor Erik Anderson pointed out to me in an interview, “This is the first time I can remember the Academy switching a performance from Lead to Supporting.” All the other examples either of us could cite were of performances that a studio campaigned as supporting, but that Oscar voters bumped up to lead.

There’s another wrinkle here, however. If actors have enough votes to ultimately be nominated in both the Lead and Supporting categories, then the category in which they have the most votes is where they compete. And because Best Supporting Actor is surely more diffuse than Best Actor because there are naturally more possible contenders, it seems incredibly likely that Stanfield received votes in both categories but got more in Supporting.

But even that possibility doesn’t explain with 100 percent confidence why Stanfield is nominated in the Supporting category. It’s entirely plausible that he garnered a higher number of votes in the more competitive Lead Actor race, but came in sixth or seventh overall, bumping him out of contention (each acting category tops out at five nominees). Yet if he also came in fourth or fifth overall in the Supporting Actor race, he would still be nominated there.

So here’s what I think happened

If you are a Judas and the Black Messiah fan voting in the acting branch of the Academy, it’s quite likely that you are going to nominate both Stanfield and Kaluuya. They’re electric, and they play off of each other well. But if you vote for one in Lead Actor, you’re surely going to vote for the other in Supporting Actor.

Given Kaluuya’s consistent nominations in the supporting categories of other industry awards throughout the season, it seems highly likely that most Kaluuya voters backed Stanfield in the lead category. But you can nonetheless argue that Kaluuya is the lead of the film, in which case you’re likely backing Kaluuya in Lead Actor and Stanfield in Supporting.

I find it hard to believe that fans of Judas and the Black Messiah within the Academy’s acting branch would vote for both actors in Supporting Actor. The story of the film clearly belongs to one of them, even if you can make a strong case for either.

My best guess is that Stanfield actually received more votes in Lead Actor but probably fell just short of clinching a nomination — in sixth or seventh place. Then, when it came time to tally Supporting Actor votes, he received fewer votes than he did in Lead Actor but still had enough votes to land among the top five contenders, pushing him to a nomination.

As always, the Oscar vote totals will remain a secret, so the answer to this question will forever remain opaque. But the Academy being full of Judas and the Black Messiah fans who loved both Stanfield’s and Kaluuya’s performances — but couldn’t entirely agree on who should be nominated where — strikes me as the most likely explanation for why they’re now competing against each other in the Supporting Actor category.