The nominations for the 82nd Academy Awards take on issues of race, class and gender in a variety of performances and narratives, aided by the expansion of the best picture race to ten films instead of its usual five.
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is a strong contender with six nominations, including best picture, best actress (Gabourey Sidibe), best supporting actress (Mo’Nique), best adapted screenplay (Geoffrey Fletcher), and best director, making Lee Daniels the second African-American to be nominated for a directing award by the academy.
Played by Sidibe, Precious is a financially impoverished, obese young woman in Harlem who struggles to find a sense of worth after being severely sexually and emotionally abused by her parents. The film is gritty and unapologetically stark, yet also manages to infuse viewers with a feeling of transcendence and hope through its performances and visual cues.
Mo’Nique has already won a Golden Globe and is a leading contender to win an Oscar as well. Her portrayal of Precious’ mother screams heartlessness and cruelty throughout much of the film, and then she turns assumptions completely around with a deeply moving final scene.
And while this may not be the year Sidibe will take home a statue, it’s heartening that a young actress whose weight and dark skin color would’ve been ostracized by inane current beauty standards will now have myriad opportunities coming her way. (According to Internet Movie Database, she is rumored to be part of the cast of the upcoming Showtime TV series The Big C.) And that in turn will help the spirit of audience members who see themselves in her.
Another best picture nominee, The Blind Side, with Sandra Bullock also nominated for best actress, features the story of a Southern white woman who comes to the aid of a homeless young black man (also large, also dark), helping him to achieve success as a student and football player. The story’s premise has caused many African-American viewers to view it with a high degree of skepticism, yet that hasn’t stopped the film from earning more than $237 million domestically. And I suspect Bullock—who proved last year just how much of a huge box office draw she is with her other hit The Proposal—will be taking home a statue.
Other nominees take on race in a variety of contexts. The Princess and the Frog, as Disney’s first feature length cartoon to showcase a black princess, is nominated for best animated feature, along with two nods for original song. And Invictus, with Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela immediately after the end of apartheid, earned nominations for actor and supporting actor.
Still, the films that deal with race metaphorically deserve close scrutiny too. The technologically innovative Avatar, along with the Iraq war film The Hurt Locker, lead the pack with nine nominations each. While Avatar is ostensibly about a crippled marine who takes up with a blue skinned, feline alien race, it’s also a treatise on the exploitation of indigenous cultures by corporate/imperialistic forces. All of Avatar’s alien main characters are played by actors of color, and while some moviegoers have critiqued the film for its stereotypical depictions of native tribes and unoriginal plot devices revolving around cultural assimilation, it’s also a mainstream film that unabashedly takes the side of the “primitive” foreigners.
The other sci-fi best picture nominee, District 9, was a surprise summer hit about the last survivors of an alien race who make it to earth, becoming stranded in South Africa. They’re subsequently forced to live in interment camps. The parallels between the plight of the aliens and the apartheid-era are immediately clear.
The fantastic themes of pictures like Avatar and District 9 provide us with the space to step back and talk more calmly about skin prejudice, xenophobia and poverty without feeling personally indicted or victimized. May the conversations around Oscar and its nominations go beyond who gave the best show onscreen and and instead focus on who and what lead us deeper.