Oscars 2021: Portrayals of Black musicians power acting noms


When Viola Davis and Andra Day face off for the lead actress trophy at Sunday’s 93rd Academy Awards, the competitors will mark simply the second time that two Black girls have been nominated in that class in the identical 12 months.

That’s not the one little bit of Oscars historical past they’ll be making almost half a century after Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson each obtained nods in 1973. For the primary time on the Academy Awards, the performances nominated for lead actress embody two portrayals of well-known real-life musicians: the pioneering blues singer Ma Rainey (as performed by Davis in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) and the legendary jazz vocalist Billie Holiday (as performed by Day in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”).

Viola Davis as Ma Rainey in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

(David Lee / Netflix)

The males’s classes are crowded with music too. In supporting actor, Leslie Odom Jr. is up for his function as one more real-life star, gospel and soul nice Sam Cooke, in “One Night in Miami…” Add the 2 actors tapped for his or her lead performances as fictional characters — the late Chadwick Boseman’s jazz trumpeter in “Ma Rainey” and Riz Ahmed’s drummer experiencing listening to loss in “Sound of Metal” — and totally 1 / 4 of the nominations for Hollywood’s highest performing honors acknowledge depictions of musicians.

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Oscar voters have lengthy been drawn to tales about people who win Grammys, after all — assume “Walk the Line” and “Ray” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Pop stars’ colourful lives comprise built-in drama, whereas names like Johnny Cash and Ray Charles and Loretta Lynn promise built-in audiences.

Yet this 12 months’s subject stands out not only for the unusually excessive variety of music-related nominations however for the varieties of music concerned. In 2019, voters showered nominations on “Bohemian Rhapsody,” concerning the traditional rock band Queen, and on Lady Gaga’s roots-rock reboot of “A Star Is Born”; final 12 months Reneé Zellweger was named finest actress for taking part in Judy Garland and Elton John received an Oscar for authentic tune for a tune he wrote for his personal biopic.

Black music, in distinction, is on the coronary heart of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” and “One Night in Miami…” — and of “Soul,” the Pixar movie a few jazz pianist that’s nominated within the animated function class.

An animated man sitting at a piano talks with a woman standing and holding a saxophone

Pixar’s “Soul,” a few jazz pianist, is nominated within the animated function class.


In addition to Odom’s performing nod, “One Night in Miami…” earned an tailored screenplay nomination for Kemp Powers, who additionally co-wrote and co-directed “Soul”; the unique tune and authentic rating classes are equally stuffed with jazz and R&B by composers and performers together with Terence Blanchard (“Da 5 Bloods”), H.E.R. (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) and Jon Batiste (“Soul”).

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Look past the Oscars and also you’ll discover much more tales about Black music in movie and tv: National Geographic’s miniseries “Genius: Aretha,” about Aretha Franklin; HBO’s “Tina,” about Tina Turner; “Sylvie’s Love,” the Amazon Studios film about two younger lovers in Harlem’s early-’60s jazz scene; and director Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology, together with the reggae-drenched “Lovers Rock.”

Why? Hollywood would say that is the fruit of its efforts to develop illustration within the wake of Black Lives Matter and #OscarsSoWhite. That might actually be true, although one can’t low cost the truth that the labor of variety has been made simpler with the creation of a zillion new streaming providers that require much less funding of assets than the outdated theatrical enterprise. (We’ll see how a lot power studios proceed to place into tasks like these after COVID relinquishes its grip on a captive viewers.)

A woman on public transportation drinks from a tumbler in a black and white photo.

Radha Blank within the “The 40-Year-Old Version.”

(Jeong Park / Sundance Institute)

Even assuming the most effective of the business, it’s value noting that there’s a vital small-C conservatism at work right here: Jazz and soul music and reggae are long-established types with which Hollywood has no actual selection however to really feel comfy at this level. One more moderen film about Black music — actor-writer-director Radha Blank’s shifting and hilarious “The 40-Year-Old Version,” by which she performs a struggling playwright who reinvents herself as a rapper — earned rave evaluations and fared nicely on the competition circuit.

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Alas, it’s set on the planet of hip-hop, which helps clarify why Blank isn’t within the Oscars combine.

Though it vividly depicts an artist’s artistic frustrations, “The 40-Year-Old Version” can also be brief on the sort of private trauma that the academy tends to overvalue in nominated performances, notably in portrayals of musicians’ lives. Suffering is an enormous a part of what we see Davis’ and Day’s characters do in “Ma Rainey” and “Billie Holiday”; it’s central to the expertise Ahmed dramatizes in “Sound of Metal.” To make certain, all three performers convey a sensitivity to their roles that preserves every character’s humanity. But presenting musicians as basically tortured is a transfer as limiting as it’s acquainted.

If the expertise celebrated Sunday means that Hollywood is pondering extra broadly about whose musical tales to inform, possibly subsequent the flicks can broaden how precisely they’re informed.

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