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Academy Awards 2021: 'Nomadland' Wins Best Picture Oscar As Its Director Leads A Wave Of Diversity

93rd Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Chloe Zhao became the first woman of color, and only the second woman, to win the directing Oscar.
(Handout/A.M.P.A.S.
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Getty Images North America)
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The venue was temporary. The rules were short-term. And the safety measures likely transient.

Could what transpired in Sunday night’s Academy Awards be more lasting?

In an unfamiliar pandemic staging of Hollywood’s most familiar awards ceremony, Oscar voters honored a diverse group of actors and filmmakers. And the evening’s best picture winner, “Nomadland,” fittingly tells the story of the disenfranchised trying to keep a toehold in society.

Just a year after just one non-white performer was nominated for an acting trophy, two of the four acting winners were people of color: Daniel Kuluuya was named best supporting actor for “Judas and the Black Messiah”; and “Minari’s” Yuh-Jung Youn won the supporting actress trophy, the first Korean performer to win an acting Oscar.

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But two Black performers did not triumph in the lead categories, as they did at the recent Screen Actors Guild Awards. The lead actress winner was Frances McDormand from “Nomadland,” who beat out co-favorite Viola Davis from “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” And Anthony Hopkins was named best actor for “The Father,” not the late Chadwick Boseman from “Ma Rainey.”

The last time two Black performers won acting trophies in the same show was in 2002, when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry were victorious.

Even if it wasn’t a sweep in the acting roles, the shift toward diversity was not only swift but also steady inside downtown’s Union Station, where the Oscars were relocated from its traditional home, the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.

The first acting winner was Kuluuya. Emerald Fennell won the original screenplay trophy for “Promising Young Woman,” the first woman to win a screenwriting Oscar since Diablo Cody for 2007’s “Juno.” Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson became the first Black women to win the Oscar for hair and makeup for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

And in one of the most material victories of the evening, “Nomadland” filmmaker Chloe Zhao became the first woman of color — and only the second woman ever — to collect the Oscar for directing. “Nomadland’s” tale of houseless vagabonds is largely performed with a host of the real nomads from Jessica Bruder’s book, several of whom accompanied McDormand to receive the best picture statuette.

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Made by the Walt Disney Co.’s Searchlight Pictures, “Nomadland” is the very first Disney film ever to win best picture.

The victories for Zhao, who was born in China, and Yuh-Jung Youn, who is Korean, made it a rare night of industry achievement for Asians, who have never won two top awards in the same year.

The show unfolded not only during the pandemic but also in response to urgent calls, accelerated by the murder of George Floyd, for a global reckoning over systemic racism.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has dramatically expanded its voting ranks over the past decade, inviting younger and more diverse members into the fold. Yet even as the membership grew less white, male and old, Oscar winners remained homogeneous, sparking the creation of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite six years ago.

But signs of potential change emerged when the pandemic-delayed nominations for this year’s show were revealed in mid-March, past the date when the Oscar ceremony usually is already over. Nine actors of color were nominated, and 70 women received nominations, both records in a single year.

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The diversity of the nominees hinged, in part, on a rewriting of a fundamental Oscar rule. With the majority of the nation’s theaters closed for the majority of 2020, the academy removed its stipulation that movies must premiere in theaters to be Oscar-eligible.

This year, video-on-demand and streaming debuts qualified, and the companies with the most nominations by far were streamers — Netflix, with 35, and Amazon, with 12. Among the nine best picture nominees, only one was released by a major studio: Warner Bros.’ “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

For all of the high marks for diversity in Sunday’s show, Hollywood’s overall inclusion report card remains lacking.

In a study of last year’s films released three days before the Oscars, UCLA researchers found that women accounted for just 26% of writers and barely 20% of directors. USC analysts similarly found that female and non-white actors are cast at a fraction of the U.S. population.

While the academy doesn’t decide which movies get made, it does control which movies can compete for best picture. And under new Oscar rules unveiled last September, a movie must pass at least two of four diversity and inclusion tests to qualify for the top Academy Award starting in 2024.

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Even if the Oscars sent a message that winners need not be white or — especially when it comes to directing and screenwriting — male, it likely wasn’t heard by many. Last year’s ceremony was the lowest-rated in Oscar history, and with this year’s virtual ceremony featuring no celebrity-gridlocked red carpet, it’s almost certain viewership this time will be even smaller.

Full List Of Winners

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

ANTHONY HOPKINS: "The Father:

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

DANIEL KALUUYA: "Judas and the Black Messiah"

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

FRANCES McDORMAND: "Nomadland"

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

YUH-JUNG YOUN: "Minari"

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

"SOUL": Pete Docter and Dana Murray

CINEMATOGRAPHY

"MANK": Erik Messerschmidt

COSTUME DESIGN

"MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM": Ann Roth

DIRECTING

"NOMADLAND": Chloé Zhao

DOCUMENTARY (FEATURE)

"MY OCTOPUS TEACHER": Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed and Craig Foster

DOCUMENTARY (SHORT SUBJECT)

"COLETTE": Anthony Giacchino and Alice Doyard

FILM EDITING

"SOUND OF METAL": Mikkel E. G. Nielsen

INTERNATIONAL FEATURE FILM

"ANOTHER ROUND" (Denmark)

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

"MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM": Sergio Lopez-Rivera, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)

"SOUL": Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)

"FIGHT FOR YOU": from "Judas and the Black Messiah"; Music by H.E.R. and Dernst Emile II; Lyric by H.E.R. and Tiara Thomas

BEST PICTURE

"NOMADLAND": Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey and Chloé Zhao, Producers

PRODUCTION DESIGN

"MANK": Production Design: Donald Graham Burt; Set Decoration: Jan Pascale

SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)

"IF ANYTHING HAPPENS I LOVE YOU": Will McCormack and Michael Govier

SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION)

"TWO DISTANT STRANGERS": Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe

SOUND

"SOUND OF METAL": Nicolas Becker, Jaime Baksht, Michelle Couttolenc, Carlos Cortés and Phillip Blad

VISUAL EFFECTS

"TENET": Andrew Jackson, David Lee, Andrew Lockley and Scott Fisher

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)

"THE FATHER": Screenplay by Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller

WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)

"PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN": Written by Emerald Fennell