What are Chiwetel’s chances? Tracking the Oscar races for black nominees

ANALYSIS - Black performers and filmmakers made a decent showing among this year's Academy Award nominees...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Black performers and filmmakers made a decent showing among this year’s Academy Award nominees.

While Frutivale Station and The Butler went ignored by Oscar voters, the stars and makers of 12 Years a Slave are surely smiling this morning.

But how will they (and Captain Phillips co-star Barkhad Abdi) actually fare in their competitive races?

Best Actor

This is arguably the most competitive race of the night. If you don’t believe us, just look at who didn’t get in: Joaquin Phoenix. Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, Idris Elba, Forest Whitaker and Michael B. Jordan were all seen as legitimate contenders for a nomination, if not the win.

Now, 12 Years a Slave star Chiwetel Ejiofor is the lone actor of color competing against veteran Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), Christian Bale (American Hustle), and Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club).

Bale’s nomination is widely perceived as the biggest surprise and while he is stellar in the physically transformative role he played in American Hustle, his nomination is likely his reward.

At age 77, Dern is certainly a sentimental favorite, but Nebraska may be too light a film to take home the coveted best actor prize, which usually goes to dramatic work.

DiCaprio is a bit of wild card. He’s definitely due — he’s been nominated three times for an Oscar and never won. Plus, many feel he was unjustly left out last year for his villainous role in Django Unchained. Still, The Wolf of Wall Street has almost as many detractors as it does fans, so he may be passed over once again.

That leaves McConaughey as Ejiofor’s toughest competition. His role as a man dying of AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club is very awards-bait-y and McConaughey has rapidly evolved from being dismissed as a typical Hollywood hunk to being seen as a legitimately serious actor. On the other hand, Ejiofor’s performance was a breakthrough — and turned the respected character into a household name and a major leading man. Ejiofor should emerge triumphant on Oscar night.

Best Supporting Actress

Now that Oprah Winfrey has been overlooked (yet again) for her comeback film role in The Butler, Lupita Nyong’o will be the only actress of color competing for an Academy Award this year. Her heartbreaking performance as an abused slave in 12 Years a Slave is unforgettable but unfortunately for her, this category is historically unpredictable.

Nyong’o is up against well-liked British actress Sally Hawkins for her performance opposite Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle, veteran character actress June Squibb for Nebraska and Hollywood icon Julia Roberts for the little-seen August: Osage County.

Hawkins and Roberts, while the beneficiaries of good reviews, are not viewed as real threats for the win.

This is really a three-person race. While Squibb is not a household name, the 84-year-old is a very respected and likable character actress who may have a lot of friends in the Academy. Her hilarious, foul-mouthed performance opposite Dern in Nebraska is a lot of fun but she will likely be overshadowed by two younger Hollywood ‘It girls.’

Those would be Nyong’o, who remarkably has only appeared in one film — her nominated role in 12 Years a Slave — and Jennifer Lawrence, who is riding high off the blockbuster Hunger Games series, a best actress win last year for Silver Linings Playbook and another showy part in American Hustle.

It looks like Lawrence is the favorite here, as improbable as it might be. Back-to-back wins (even in different categories) are extremely rare. But Lawrence’s likable, off-the-cuff style seems to have really endeared her to the Hollywood establishment. Lupita Nyong’o fans shouldn’t fret though — she likely has a long career ahead of her.

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi has an amazing story. A former limousine driver scores an Oscar nomination in his first film role opposite Hollywood legend Tom Hanks. His powerful narrative will go a long way to persuading Academy voters to give him the Oscar.

Jonah Hill’s nomination came as something of a surprise, not because he isn’t great in Wolf of Wall Street (he is), but because he was largely ignored during awards season. Bradley Cooper has come in late for his funny, live-wire performance in American Hustle, but if he’s going to win the Oscar it likely won’t be for this part.

Michael Fassbender was terrifying and brilliant in 12 Years a Slave but he hasn’t really been winning many of the precursor awards. Academy voters may feel uncomfortable rewarding him for playing such a monster. Twenty years ago Ralph Fiennes was seen as a sure thing for his performance as a Nazi soldier in Schindler’s List, but on Oscar night he lost to Tommy Lee Jones’ more crowd-pleasing role in The Fugitive.

Speaking of crowd pleasing — there’s Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club. He does the kind of physical transformation that Oscar voters love (losing tons of weight and squeezing into women’s clothes). He’s been also winning most of the awards leading up the big night. He will likely triumph over Abdi.

Best Picture

12 Years a Slave has an impressive 9 nominations total, including telling notices for editing and its screenplay, which suggest it has a lot of support among Academy voters. That said, it trails Gravity and American Hustle, which both have 10.

Both of those movies are huge crowd-pleasers with major stars in them, which also might hurt 12 Years a Slave.

The rest of the best picture nominees (Her, Captain Phillips, The Wolf of Wall Street, Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club and Nebraska) are either too polarizing, not substantive enough or not quite popular enough to take the night’s biggest prize.

Gravity will have a lot of fans in the technical branches because of its eye-popping visual effects but there are some who feel the screenplay was lacking and a science fiction film has never won best picture.

So arguably the 1970s-set American Hustle, which is loosely inspired by the ABSCAM scandal, is the biggest competition for 12 Years a Slave. An undeniably entertaining romp, Hustle is stacked with a great cast, costumes and music. It’s also a big hit at the box office, which doesn’t hurt.

Still, 12 Years a Slave has been widely hailed as the best film ever made about slavery. That’s a very high bar and it makes the charms of American Hustle seem trite by comparison. The epic Solomon Northup story will likely emerge the victor on Oscar night.

Best Director

While splits between best picture and director are unusual, they do happen. And if there was ever a year that lent itself to that scenario, its this one. Scorsese has already won and no one would argue Wolf of Wall Street is his best work. Alexander Payne is definitely due but his film is too small compared to the others. Which leaves this as a legit three-person race between David O. Russell (American Hustle), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) and Alfonso Cauron (Gravity).

This may be the toughest race to call. David O. Russell, after last year’s success with Silver Linings Playbook, has become Hollywood’s favorite “actor’s director” — he gets show-stopping performances and does really relatable human-scale movies.

On the other end of the spectrum, Cauron made a technical marvel, one of the most acclaimed sci-fi film of all time, featuring big star performances from Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, in what will be the biggest hit of either of their careers.

And then there’s McQueen, only the third African-American to ever be nominated for best director (the others were John Singleton for Boyz n the Hood and Lee Daniels for Precious). Perhaps Hollywood is finally ready to make history. After embracing the first best picture to feature a predominately black cast they may not want to overlook that film’s British auteur. A McQueen victory would put a satisfying button on a fantastic year in black film.

This may all be wishful thinking of course. We won’t know who wins for sure until the Academy Awards air on March 2nd.