Oscars 2018 analysis: Voters send clear message on diversity in race and gender

The moment of truth at Oscar nominations came at about 5:45 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, when Andy Serkis and Tiffany Haddish read off the nominees chosen by the Academy’s stubborn, opinionated Directors Branch, which loves to confuse people who think they know the Oscars.

And in a year that finds Hollywood grappling with the opportunities long denied to women and to minorities, the directors included both a woman, Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), and a black man, Jordan Peele (“Get Out”), in its list of five nominees.

She was only the fifth woman nominated for directing in the 90-year history of the Oscars; he was only the fifth black man. It wasn’t the first time the Directors Branch had nominated a woman and a black man in the same year — the 2009 nominees included Kathryn Bigelow, who won, and “Precious” filmmaker Lee Daniels — but in the current climate, it felt huge, just as it had when the Directors Guild had nominated both Gerwig and Peele on January 11.

In the year that saw the rise of #TimesUp and could have tilted toward a replay of #OscarsSoWhite, the choice made by the Academy’s directors was a huge statement at a time when, like it or not, the Oscar nominations needed to make a statement.

See photos of Greta Gerwig:

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Greta Gerwig out and about
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Greta Gerwig out and about
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 21: Greta Gerwig arrives at the 24th Annual Screen Actors-Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 21, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 20: Greta Gerwig attends the 29th Annual Producers Guild Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 20, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 21: (L-R) Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Greta Gerwig, and Timothee Chalamet arrive at the 24th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 21, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Dan MacMedan/Getty Images)
SANTA MONICA, CA - JANUARY 11: Greta Gerwig attends the 23rd Annual Critics' Choice Awards on January 11, 2018 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for Landmark Vineyards )
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 10: Greta Gerwig speaks at SAG-AFTRA Foundation at The Robin Williams Center on January 10, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 09: Greta Gerwig seen out in Manhattan on January 09, 2018 in New York, NY. (Photo by Josiah Kamau/BuzzFoto via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 09: Director Greta Gerwig attends the 2018 Film Society Of Lincoln Center & Film Comment Luncheon at Lincoln Ristorante on January 9, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 08: Actress Greta Gerwig is seen on January 8, 2018 in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 07: Timothee Chalamet, Laurie Metcalf, Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan attend the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards - Press Room at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 7, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 07: Actor Greta Gerwig attends FIJI Water at HFPA�s Official Viewing and After-Party at the Wilshire Garden inside The Beverly Hilton on January 7, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for FIJI Water)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 06: Actress Greta Gerwig arrives at The BAFTA Los Angeles Tea Party at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills on January 6, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 06: Greta Gerwig poses for a portrait at the BAFTA Los Angeles Tea Party on January 6, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Rich Fury/BAFTA LA/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 05: Greta Gerwig arrives at the 18th Annual AFI Awards on January 5, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 04: (L-R) Greta Gerwig, Frank Bruni, and Saoirse Ronan attend TimesTalks Presents Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan at Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Music Center on January 4, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 03: Actress Greta Gerwig attends the 2017 New York Film Critics Awards at TAO Downtown on January 3, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 11: Actress Greta Gerwig speaks onstage at Hammer Museum presents The Contenders 2017 - 'Lady Bird' - at Hammer Museum on December 11, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)
WATCH WHAT HAPPENS LIVE WITH ANDY COHEN -- Pictured (l-r): Greta Gerwig and Joe Keery -- (Photo by: Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 27: Greta Gerwig attends the 2017 IFP Gotham Awards at Cipriani Wall Street on November 27, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 20: Actress/ director Greta Gerwig visits the SiriusXM Studios on November 20, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)
LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS -- Episode 611 -- Pictured: Actress Greta Gerwig arrives on November 20, 2017 -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
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This year was never going to be just a matter of tallying up the nominations and figuring out front runners. On the heels of the Academy’s concerted campaign to become more diverse and in the aftermath of the movement that swept Hollywood and the country in the wake of accusations against Harvey Weinstein and then many others, the big question was what message the 7,000-plus Academy voters were going to send about gender and race, diversity and inclusion.

It’s not fair to saddle a batch of movie awards with that kind of import — but at a time of crisis, it’s unavoidable. So the success of “Get Out” and “Mudbound” were going to deliver a verdict on how accepting the Academy is of black filmmakers (never mind that resistance to the latter film likely had more to do with anti-Netflix bias than racial issues).

And with Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” and Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father” slipping out of the awards conversation, the Academy’s response to the #TimesUp movement was going to hinge on how much voters liked “Lady Bird.”

And the voters also included “Call Me by Your Name” in the Best Picture field, suggesting that acceptance of LGBT themes didn’t stop with last year’s surprise win for “Moonlight.”

See photos of Jordan Peele:

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Jordan Peele out and about
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Jordan Peele out and about
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 21: Actor/director Jordan Peele attends the 24th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 21, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. 27522_010 (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Turner Image)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 21: Actor Chelsea Peretti (L) and director Jordan Peele attend the 24th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 21, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images for People Magazine)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 20: Jordan Peele attends the 29th Annual Producers Guild Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 20, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 20: (L-R) Kat Kramer, Jordan Peele and Karen Kramer attend the 29th Annual Producers Guild Awards supported by GreenSlate at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 20, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by John Sciulli/Getty Images for GreenSlate)
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 15: Jordan Peele (L) and Daniel Kaluuya pose during the 49th NAACP Image Awards at Pasadena Civic Auditorium on January 15, 2018 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for NAACP)
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 14: Jordan Peele accepts award for Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture at the 49th NAACP Image Awards Non-Televised Awards Dinner at the Pasadena Conference Center on January 14, 2018 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Earl Gibson III/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 13: Jordan Peele attends the 43rd Annual Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards on January 13, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)
SANTA MONICA, CA - JANUARY 11: Actor Chelsea Peretti and writer/director Jordan Peele attend The 23rd Annual Critics' Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on January 11, 2018 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
SANTA MONICA, CA - JANUARY 11: Actor Jordan Peele attends Moet & Chandon celebrate The 23rd Annual Critics' Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on January 11, 2018 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Moet & Chandon )
SANTA MONICA, CA - JANUARY 11: Writer/director Jordan Peele speaks on stage at The 23rd Annual Critics' Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on January 11, 2018 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 09: Jordan Peele attends the 2018 National Board of Review Awards Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on January 9, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/FilmMagic)
LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS -- Episode 631 -- Pictured: Comedian Jordan Peele during an interview on January 9, 2018 -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 09: (L-R) Jordan Peele, National Board of Review President Annie Schulhof, and Daniel Kaluuya attend The National Board Of Review Annual Awards Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on January 9, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for National Board of Review)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 07: Actor Jordan Peele (R) and Chelsea Peretti attend the Focus Features Golden Globe Awards After Party on January 7, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 05: Jordan Peele arrives at the 18th Annual AFI Awards on January 5, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
PALM SPRINGS, CA - JANUARY 03: Actor Jordan Peele arrived at the Variety's Creative Impact Awards And 10 Directors To Watch At The 29th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival at Parker Palm Springs on January 3, 2018 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett/WireImage)
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That’s too much baggage to put on those three movies, to be sure. But symbolism mattered enormously this year, and the Academy sent an inclusive message not only with the directing nominations, but by putting Octavia Spencer, Mary J. Blige, Denzel Washington and Daniel Kaluuya in the acting races, getting a 20 percent nonwhite representation in categories that could have looked much whiter than that.

Given the field of movies they had to work with, that was probably enough to avoid embarrassment.

Of course, the other side of the Oscar nominations are all about counting up the nominations and figuring out the frontrunners — and on that count, “The Shape of Water” did everything it needed to do and then some.

Guillermo del Toro’s rapturous fantasy land by far the most nominations, 13, to eight for the runner-up, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” It landed slots in all of the categories thought to be essential for a true Best Picture contender: director, screenplay, cinematography and film editing.

And more to the point, the films that are thought to be its main competitors all fell short in some of those areas. “Lady Bird” and “Get Out” landed four nominations each, but they were bypassed in cinematography and, crucially, in film editing.

Even more damaging, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” writer-director Martin McDonagh was left out in the director race. If Peele or Gerwig had been overlooked in that category, you could see the omission becoming the launching pad for a campaign that could push the film itself into the winner’s circle, the same way that the Directors Branch’s failure to nominate Ben Affleck for “Argo” helped engender sympathy and might have actually helped his film win Best Picture.

But McDonagh and his tough, divisive black comedy are hardly ripe for a sympathy vote — which means that even though his film won the SAG ensemble award on Sunday, its chances of winning Best Picture have now taken a serious hit.

So all signs now point to “The Shape of Water,” albeit in the same way that all signs were pointing to “La La Land” last year. A race that has been interesting and unsettled since it kicked off in September is going to remain that way a while longer.

Meanwhile, an awards show that will inevitably become a flashpoint for various controversies took a big step toward staving off at least some of those potential controversies — and it did so with a decent number of nominees of color, with the first-ever female cinematography nominee and with the choices of the often-confounding Directors Branch.

It might be pathetic that only five women and five black men have been nominated for Oscars for directing, but that’s one more than last year on both counts. It feels, in a small but real way, like progress.

And at this stage in our history and this point in our country and our culture, we take victories wherever we can find them — even in early-morning wake-up calls from Hollywood.

See photos of the 2018 Oscars acting nominees:

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Oscars 2018: Best Actor and Actress Nominees
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Oscars 2018: Best Actor and Actress Nominees
Sally Hawkins for "The Shape of Water"
Frances McDormand for "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"
Margot Robbie for "I, Tonya"
Saoirse Ronan for "Lady Bird"
Meryl Streep for "The Post"
Timothee Chalamet for "Call Me By Your Name"
Daniel Day-Lewis for "Phantom Thread"
Daniel Kaluuya for "Get Out"
Gary Oldman for "Darkest Hour"
Denzel Washington for "Roman J. Israel, Esq."
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