Personally a rather snotty article, that critics are spending too much time complaining of the lack of diversity in films, though it's exactly what one would expect from Williamson, who lost a post at The Atlantic because he couldn't convincingly explain tweets suggesting women who had abortions be hanged. It's also exactly the sort of piece one would expect from National Review which since 1955 has always been outraged that some non white male might be treated too generously. As for Kelly Marie Train's role (a) there's been no shortage of bad The Rise of Skywalker reviews, and clearly Tran's limited role is the least of the critics' problems, (b) it does seem odd that Tran's role is so small. After all three major characters in the last movie died before the end of it, and the actress playing a fourth one died shortly after it was released. So it's hard to argue there was no room for her. Nor was she a Jar Jar Binks level of awfulness.
Since the oscar nominations are going to be announced on Monday, we're probably going to have this diversity debate. Mark Harris had a piece on the Vanity Fair website this week that looks at the issue. As it stands, it seems more likely or not that all five directors this year will be male. Harris doesn't have too much to object to this: Greta Gerwig was the one female director with a major contender this year, and despite good reviews, it's not unreasonable that many people thought it was more a ten best movie than a top five one. On the other side, there's the best actress race and here Harris is much more critical. Actually he made the points earlier in a November Vanity Fair piece: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/11/oscar-best-actress-race
If you want to know how troubling these conventions can be, look no further than this year’s best-actress race—a contest that currently involves four white actors, one Asian actor, and three black actors, and one in which, all too predictably, the prevailing belief seems to be that all four white actors are in, and that all four actors of color are vying for one remaining slot. At the prediction-aggregation site Gold Derby, which has amassed the guesses of 30 Oscar pundits, the field is currently ranked as follows:
Renée Zellweger, Judy
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Awkwafina, The Farewell
Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Alfre Woodard, Clemency
Lupita Nyong’o, Us
This is how a narrative gets entrenched: There are those who are in, and those who are fighting to get in, and the implicit notion of a quota—the idea that there is one spot for “diversity”—becomes a way of not looking at the performances.
Let’s look at the four actors presumably competing for one spot. Lupita Nyong’o is an Oscar winner who received rave reviews for a movie that, when all is said and done, may well have outgrossed the other seven films on this list combined. Cynthia Erivo is a Tony-winning actor and singer who plays an important historical figure in a film that has outperformed expectations at the box office. Awkwafina stole her scenes in a comedy smash last year and has now pivoted to drama in one of the summer’s breakout indie successes. And Alfre Woodard is a beloved veteran who received her only other nomination 36 years ago, has finally gotten to carry a movie, and in fact took it straight to the Grand Jury Prize at January’s Sundance Film Festival. It is also worth noting that all four of their movies are directed by nonwhite filmmakers, three of them women.
A good personal narrative can do a great deal to smooth the road to an Oscar nomination, and all four of those narratives more than do the job—Woodard’s story alone practically embodies the last 40 years of the history of the struggle for representation for African American women in Hollywood. To be sure, there are also some great stories to tell in the putative “top” four—Zellweger’s comeback, Johansson’s quest for a first nomination—but they’re not necessarily any more compelling.
So why, at this moment, do all three black actors look like they’re just going to miss? The rationales I’ve heard are fairly grim. There’s the “They’ll all cancel one another out” argument, which really needs to be permanently retired, since it’s premised on a horrific underlying assumption that blackness is such a salient characteristic that choosing more than one of those actors, who give performances that could not possibly be more different, would represent a kind of redundancy in the minds of many voters. It’s been suggested that Nyong’o is a long shot because Us is a genre movie that came out too early in the year, as if we did not all have that exact discussion two years ago about eventual best-picture nominee Get Out and eventual best-actor nominee Daniel Kaluuya. There’s the idea that the rest of Harriet isn’t quite up to Erivo’s performance (although the same problem hasn’t stopped momentum for Judy) and that the movie isn’t quite enough of an earner to make an impact (it’s outgrossed Judy by more than 25%).
And about Woodard, who carries most of Clemency’s scenes with a performance of staggering range and control that reaches its climax with a silent close-up that lasts almost three minutes and is as powerful as anything an actor has put on screen this year, I’ve heard, “It’s a shame the movie’s coming out so late.” That’s not wrong—in a very short voting season, opening a movie in late December doesn’t leave much time for momentum to build. Unlike Theron in Bombshell or Ronan in Little Women, whose performances voters can already—no, wait, I just checked, and what do you know! Those movies don’t open nationally until late December either, and yet both actors seem to have been ushered straight to the VIP check-in line, at the end of which seats in the contest are being held for them.
I have nothing against any of these performances and actors, but I do have a problem with looking at the order of the above list, shrugging, and saying, “Well, that’s just the way it happened to work out this year.” Because nothing has actually been worked out this year—voters are still in the process of sorting, thinking, weighing, and seeing the work, and punditry has a way of turning the expected into the accepted. I hope that, besides adding any other names to that list that strike their fancy, voters feel free to rearrange that top eight in novel ways. Why not weigh Zellweger against Johansson, since they both play mothers? Or Ronan against Awkwafina, since they both play daughters? Or Woodard against Theron, since they both play white-collar professionals? Why not proceed, right now, from the premise that nobody has a slot and go with the five performances that most surprise and move and dazzle you? Why not do everything possible to fight against a notion that should have died long before 2019, the idea that actors of color must, by definition, still fight amongst themselves for one precious invitation to the party?
Harris adds in this week's piece (https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/01/oscar-nominations-preview)
Since then, Nyong’o, the star of the biggest hit in the best-actress field, has been named the year’s best actress by the New York Film Critics Circle, the New York Film Critics Online, the Toronto Film Critics Association, the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association, and the Chicago Film Critics Association—that’s more prizes than any lead actress has won this year. And where does she currently stand on the aggregation site GoldDerby? In sixth place.
In a situation like this, we tend to start our harangues with our outrage at Academy voters. But the truth is, we have no idea what Academy voters have or have not done yet. We only know that they have been told, over and over again, in every conceivable way, that Lupita Nyong’o is not a front-runner, that she is a long shot, that she has only an outside chance, and that no number of honors and awards can change a narrative that seems to have been agreed upon early and then zealously defended, a narrative that has also put Nyong’o’s fellow SAG nominees Cynthia Erivo and Jamie Foxx juuuust out of the running. Oscar voters don’t like to waste their votes; if you tell them again and again, “That’s not happening,” it sinks in. I hope enough of them were able to ignore the dully reactionary noise and fog of this year’s punditry. But if they didn’t, and no black actors are nominated, this one’s not just on the voters; it’s on those of us who set the table for them.