With ‘King Richard’ Oscar nod, this could be Will Smith’s time

OPINION: Smith is up against Denzel Washington—again. Beyoncé and Questlove get their first nominations, while Aunjanue Ellis and Ariana DeBose receive career-changing recognition.

King Richard thegrio.com
(Credit: Warner Bros)

The Oscar voters showed tremendous love to King Richard, Will Smith’s film about the father of Serena and Venus Williams, nominating it for best picture (and five other categories), proving that sometimes Oscar voters actually do watch Oscar screeners with Black faces on the cover. 

Smith has been Hollywood royalty for so long; his first best actor nomination came 20 years ago—but he’s never won an Oscar. His thoughtful, powerful, sensitive portrayal of a loving but driven and stubborn tennis father has him leading the race for best actor (his third nomination), so this may be a breakthrough year for him. When Smith lost in 2002, he was up for Ali and lost to Denzel, who won for Training Day. This time, Denzel is on the ballot again—extending his record for the most-nominated Black actor to 10—after his amazing turn in The Tragedy of Macbeth.

But winning an Oscar can’t do much for Smith or Washington’s careers—they’re already at the top of Hollywood’s A-list. The space where the Oscars are really exciting is when they transform a career, elevating someone to a new level. In the supporting actress category, Aunjanue Ellis is nominated for her turn as Oracene Price, the mom of Serena and Venus, and Ariana DeBose is nominated for her role as Anita in West Side Storythe same role that won Rita Morena a best supporting actress Oscar in the original. For these two great actresses to be nominated means their lives will change—they’ll get more consideration for roles, more offers and hopefully, more money for the jobs they take. But if either of them were to win, it could truly change their lives. Some insiders are calling DeBose the favorite.

Beyoncé is up for best original score for “Be Alive,” a song from, guess what—King Richard. This is her first Oscar nomination. But what really excites me is Questlove getting nominated for best documentary as the director of the extraordinary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Questlove has transitioned over the decades from drummer to musical coordinator to food connoisseur to director, and it’s been thrilling to watch him move through the world as everyone’s favorite aesthete. I mean, does anyone know anyone who doesn’t like Questlove? He and Beyoncé and Will are three of the most charismatic, beloved, non-controversial Black people alive today, and it’s awesome to see their success colliding at the Oscars this year.

Often when a film like King Richard gets so many nominations—picture, actor, supporting actress, film editing, original song and original screenplay—you would think that it’s set to win the big prize at the end of the night. But, we can’t assume that Oscar voters—a large number of whom are former actors, i.e., white senior citizens—will give a Black-themed film a look. Some won’t even watch it. Sure, King Richard has a beloved, nonthreatening brother at its helm, and it’s all about tennis. Still, Oscar insiders expect the big awards to go to the Power of the Dog, Jane Campion’s extraordinary film about masculinity in the Wild West, which received 12 nominations. But that does nothing to take away from the fact that the nominations of Ellis, DeBose and Questlove have changed their lives a little and made it easier for them to get producers and studios to say yes. Knowing them, I bet they’ll use their new power to tell stories that Black people will be proud to see.

Touré, theGrio.com

Touré is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.

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