‘Moonlight,’ ‘Fences’ and Actors of Color Make Oscar History

By Sameer Rao Jan 24, 2017

Reversing course from last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored "Moonlight," "Fences," "Hidden Figures" and other people of color-centered works with Oscar nominations today (January 24).

The three films, each of which features a predominantly Black cast, compete in the "Best Picture" and "Writing (Adapted Screenplay)" categories. Actresses Viola Davis ("Fences"), Naomie Harris ("Moonlight") and Octavia Spencer ("Hidden Figures") also square off for best "Actress in a Supporting Role." 

"Moonlight’s" eight nominations are the most of any film this year besides the musical "La La Land." They include "Best Director" and "Writing (Adapted Screenplay)" for Barry Jenkins, and "Actor in a Supporting Role" for Mahershala Ali.

"Fences" star and director Denzel Washington received a best "Actor in a Leading Role" nomination. Playwright August Wilson‘s script, based on his original 1983 play, earned him a posthumous "Writing (Adapted Screenplay)" nod.

Other acting nominees of color include Ruth Negga ("Loving") for "Actress in a Leading Role" and Dev Patel ("Lion") for "Actor in a Supporting Role." Patel is the first performer of South Asian descent to receive an acting Oscar nomination since Ben Kingsley for 2000’s "Sexy Beast." 

Ava DuVernay‘s "13th," Raoul Peck‘s "I Am Not Your Negro" and Ezra Edelman‘s "O.J.: Made in America" each received Documentary (Feature)" nominations. The category also includes another Black director’s work: Roger Ross Williams‘ "Life, Animated."

This year’s nominations are far more diverse overall than last year’s, and NBC News reports that this year’s acting nominee pool is the most diverse in Oscar history. Critics resurrected the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag after last January’s nomination announcement to protest Hollywood’s marginalization of performers and creators of color. The uproar compelled the Academy to change its membership and governance policies by adding new members to executive decision-making committees and intentionally recruiting more candidates from underrepresented populations. It also inducted a new class of 683 new members that was 41 percent people of color and 46 percent women.

"The African American Film Critics Association is totally thrilled with the record-breaking number of nominations earned this year by actors and other creative artists of color," Gil Robertson IV, the organization’s president, told NBC News. "The AAFCA applauds the Academy’s efforts and we hope that their progress continues to reflect America’s rich diversity."

Jimmy Kimmel will host the 89th Academy Awards on Sunday, February 26 on ABC. Read the full nominations list on the Academy’s website