As today’s DGA nominations prove, there’s an easy way to make the Oscar nominations more exciting—and inclusive.
This week, the last three guilds to announce their nominees before the Oscars—the writers, directors, and producers—revealed their choices, and they were mostly unsurprising. The Producers Guild, which nominates 10 films every year, picked the eight that are widely seen as favorites for best-picture nominations—The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Marriage Story, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Parasite—plus my wild-card choice for a ninth, Knives Out, and Ford v Ferrari, which is the kind of classically crafted studio work the PGA often rewards.
And the Directors Guild, announcing Tuesday afternoon, honored Bong Joon-ho, Sam Mendes, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino, along with Taika Waititi, a mild surprise in a slot many thought would go to Todd Phillips for Joker. The lists were pretty pro forma—except for one: The DGA’s nominees for best director of a first feature, which is now in its fifth year. They are:
Mati Diop, Atlantics
Alma Har’el, Honey Boy
Melina Matsoukas, Queen & Slim
Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, The Peanut Butter Falcon
Joe Talbot, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
This roster is, in a word, thrilling. On a day when BAFTA is castigating itself for its own inability to find a single actor of color to nominate, and the DGA itself opted for five men, here’s a slate that includes three women, two of them women of color and two foreign-born. It’s a roster that is not only diverse but expresses an implicit understanding that “diversity” is not a box to be checked but the logical expression of the depth and breadth of movies worth honoring, if you expand your horizons a little. The DGA found room for a Sundance hit (The Last Black Man in San Francisco), a Cannes honoree from Senegal that’s on the long list for the Academy’s best-international-feature Oscar (Atlantics), a breakout studio success that wildly overperformed expectations (Queen & Slim), an indie that, with very little pedigree, became a slow-building word-of-mouth smash (The Peanut Butter Falcon), and a movie star’s daring dive into autobiography (Honey Boy) that proved to be a directorial tour de force. Which leads to a natural question: Isn’t it time to make “best first feature” an Oscar category?
Consider how successful the DGA’s list has been since it was inaugurated in 2015. The nominees have included Bradley Cooper, Boots Riley, Joel Edgerton, Bo Burnham (last year’s winner, for Eighth Grade), Jordan Peele, and Marielle Heller. That’s exactly the mix of glamour, talent, surprise, and prescience that can make an awards-bestowing organization look smart and relevant. Moreover, at a moment in Oscar history when the Academy has drastically overhauled its own membership but still faces the industry-wide systemic inequities that are currently causing people to wonder if we’re looking at yet another all-male directing lineup or an acting roster with only one performer of color among the 20 nominees, a best-first-film Oscar that could go to the director (or—here’s a crazy thought—the director and writer!) would be a way of celebrating the future of movies along with their past and present. It’s hard to see the downside of adding a prize that would broaden the Academy’s—and the viewer’s—definition of what makes a good movie.
In the past, the DGA list of first-timers has made room for some mainstream smashes, including the likes of A Star Is Born, Get Out, and Deadpool. This year, the list is, no question, artier, but that doesn’t mean obscure. Two of the nominees were genuine box-office successes; The Last Black Man in San Francisco is streaming on several services, Atlantics is on Netflix, and Honey Boy will shortly land on Amazon. These films aren’t obscure bits of esoterica—they’re movies, like any other movies, and their celebration this late in the game is one of the season’s more welcome developments. If the Academy wants its awards to stay vital and surprising as the Oscars near the one-century mark, it should forget that pandering best-popular-film idea from last year (it already has) and consider opening its doors to a new award for some of the freshest and most exciting new talent in the filmmaking world. It’s time to start looking ahead.