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What does it mean when the Academy turns a blind eye to the contributions of women behind the camera during a period when there has been a growing degree of self-congratulations for making token efforts toward representation?


Debra Granik on the set of ‘Leave No Trace.’ // Credit: Scott Green (Bleecker Street)

The film industry, much like American society as a whole, can’t stop repeating the following series of buzzwords: diversity, inclusion, representation. The words form a mantra, an expression of our collective striving to do better, to be better. But words fail, especially when they are not backed up by actions. What happens when we don’t recognize all of the best film work?

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Oscars nominations on Jan. 22, they had yet another opportunity to give extra life and meaning to that mantra. In many ways, the latest Academy Awards nominations  spotlight great and necessary strides for women and people of color. In terms of performance, the fields for both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress were so stacked that deserving candidates like Viola Davis (Widows) and Claire Foy (First Man) failed to make the final cut in their respective categories.

Fortunately, the nominations of Ruth E. Carter (Costume Design) and Hannah Beachler (Production Design, shared with Jay Hart) for Black Panther bestow honor and recognition on a pair of African-American women in fields typically assumed to be the domain of white technicians. In fact, Beachler is the first African-American to be nominated for Production Design. And it won’t be surprising if the duo seize Oscars for their ability to stunningly translate the spirit of Afrofuturism, which defines Ryan Coogler’s politically-charged comic book saga about the fictional African nation of Wakanda.

But what does it mean when the Academy turns a blind eye to the contributions of women behind the camera during a period when there has been a growing degree of self-congratulations for making token efforts toward representation? I certainly mean to take nothing away from Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War), Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), Alfonso Cuarón (Roma) or Adam McKay (Vice) — there is an obvious respect for individual diversity in that cohort, plus an acknowledgement that these directors brought out the best in their female performers (including the six women who were nominated for their roles).

It is worth considering whether Lynne Ramsay, the director of the grim and gritty action-drama You Were Never Really There, somehow factored into the likely rounds of voting that took place. Having spent her career in the indie trenches (helming films like Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin with Samantha Morton and Tilda Swinton in lead roles), she continued in this vein with her latest, in which Joaquin Phoenix brought his brooding weight to the story of a twitchy veteran who tracks down missing girls. In less inspired hands, You Were Never Really There would have been nothing more than a Liam Neeson paycheck vehicle. Ramsey gives us a blunt and unflinching look at the history of violent acts and their repercussions.

The same question looms over the exclusion of Debra Granik, another woman in the independent film world who popped up on the Academy’s radar back in 2011 with a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for Winter’s Bone (far better known as the film that landed Jennifer Lawrence her first acting nod and a rising A-lister status). Since Granik is not an operator on the margins, why was there no love for Leave No Trace, her haunting tale about a father (Ben Foster) attempting to raise his young daughter (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) off the grid. Maybe the hyper-intimacy and intensity of the material frightened voters.

Such fears would seem to have been absent in the work of Marielle Heller, whose second feature Can You Ever Forgive Me? earned nominations for Melissa McCarthy (Best Actress), Richard E. Grant (Best Supporting Actor) and Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty (Best Adapted Screenplay). Are we to assume that the script and the performers did all of the heavy lifting on this project? Heller’s first feature The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which she adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel, showcased a refusal to wallow in sentimentality, and that sensibility remains in effect in Can You Ever Forgive Me?.

The truth about writer Lee Israel’s forgery and elaborate deceptions isn’t glitzed up or played for sympathy, which is a lesson the Academy and society could learn from as we stumble along this journey of a million steps toward recognizing how hard representation really is.