Female directors triumph in Oscar nominations, but why is 'Judas' the only Black-led film in the best picture race?

David Oliver
USA TODAY

The Oscar nominations have arrived and they were huge for inclusion - well, to a point.

The Academy made noticeable progress with Monday's announcement, particularly in the acting and directing categories, though the best picture race still leaned heavily white. 

Good news first: Among performers, it’s the most diverse slate of nominees ever – and a far cry from the all-white acting nominees that spawned the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag five years ago. Nine of the 20 acting nominees are people of color.

But disparity showed in the best picture race. Eight films were nominated for best picture, including the powerful Black Panther drama "Judas and the Black Messiah" – but other predominantly Black-led films were not included, like "Da 5 Bloods," "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "One Night in Miami." (Regina King also missed out on a nomination for best director.) Oscar rules allow up to 10 films to be nominated.

Oscar nominations 2021:'Mank' leads with 10 honors, Viola Davis makes history

"Judas," directed by Shaka King, is the first best-picture nominee with an all-Black producing team.

This is also the first year more than one woman has been nominated for best director. Emerald Fennell ("Promising Young Woman") and Chloé  Zhao ("Nomadland") each scored nominations. Zhao also became the first woman of color ever nominated in the category. Only five women had been previously nominated for best director in history. 

"My heart is racing," said Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood told USA TODAY in an email shortly after the nominations were announced. "I was praying for one (best director nominee) and hoping for two and when they announced the three men first I was like OMG, OMG, OMG and then I just let out a big sigh. It is the sigh of so many women who have been overlooked for so long."

Stacy L. Smith of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative agreed. "Given that so few talented women have been nominated as directors in more than 90 years, to have Emerald Fennell and Chloé  Zhao – the first woman of color – among the nominees is an important step," she said. "Yet we have to ask why Regina King's work has not merited a nomination this year alongside her fellow directors."

Oscar nomination snubs: Jodie Foster, Jared Leto, Tom Hanks, Spike Lee, 'Da 5 Bloods'

In the lead acting categories, three out of the five nominees for best actor went to artists of color: Riz Ahmed ("Sound of Metal"), the late Chadwick Boseman ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom") and Steven Yeun ("Minari"). Ahmed is the first nominee of Pakistani heritage for best actor.

Viola Davis ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom") and Andra Day ("The United States vs. Billie Day"), fresh off her Golden Globes win, are in contention for best actress. Davis, clinching her fourth nomination, is now the most-nominated Black actress in history.

Three out of the five Oscar nominations for best supporting actor went to Black performers: Daniel Kaluuya and (surprise!) Lakeith Stanfield for "Judas and the Black Messiah," and Leslie Odom Jr. for "One Night in Miami."  

More:Glenn Close has 'gone without an Oscar for 40 years.' Could 'Hillbilly Elegy' change that?

The supporting actress list, although less diverse than supporting actor, included Yuh-jung Youn for "Minari," making her the fourth Asian nominated for supporting actress. She'd be the second to win following Japanese-born Miyoshi Umeki ("Sayonara") in 1957.

Director Chloé Zhao (right) chats with star Frances McDormand on the set of "Nomadland."

The Academy has made an effort to diversify its membership over the last five years, proving "when you have a more diverse voting body, nominations naturally become more inclusive," said Marcie Cleary, a talent lawyer and partner at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz.

Starting in 2024, films hoping to qualify for the best picture race will need to meet a new diversity and inclusion standard in at least two out of four areas – though only one of those requirements pertains to representation in front of the camera.

Best picture race to get a shake-up in 2024:Academy announces new diversity and inclusion standards

The entertainment industry has promised progress when it comes to diversity and inclusion but recent studies have shown there is plenty of room for growth.

Hollywood movies continue to lack inclusive representation of racial and ethnic groups, girls and women, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities, according to a study released in September by Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

Smith said at the time the study shows an overall ecosystem in which women and people of color are marginalized and minimized.Case in point: The study found only a slight uptick in leading and/or co-leading characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups (from 27 films in 2018 to 32 films in 2019).

The Anita Hill-chaired Hollywood Commission found last year that white men have the most positive view of industry progress in diversity (78%). The same can't be said for women of multiple races: Women were less impressed with forward movement, with 50% of biracial women and 47% of Black women believing that Hollywood has made progress.

"That's troubling in and of itself," Hill told USA TODAY of these data points last December. "But it's also troubling because we know that if you look at the leadership in entertainment, that we know that they look like the group of people who believe that we've made significant progress. They don't look like the people who have been marginalized historically."

While one company, Netflix, may be doing better than its industry peers in terms of diversity and inclusion across film and TV, it too still has a lot of work to do, particularly for the Asian, Latino and LGBTQ communities.

LGBTQ characters, for example, were only in the main cast of 4.3% of movies, a figure that even surprised its executives.

A lack of inclusion isn't just costing the industry morally – but financially, too. A new study from consulting firm McKinsey & Co. revealed the industry is losing $10 billion each year due to inequality.

"Fewer Black-led stories get told, and when they are, these projects have been consistently underfunded and undervalued, despite often earning higher relative returns than other properties," according to the study's authors.

Contributing: Maria Puente, Bryan Alexander and Rasha Ali, Associated Press

More on that Anita Hill-chaired study:Hollywood needs 'more representation in decision-making,' Anita Hill says