After two years of being shut out of the acting awards completely, this year's Oscar nominations mark the first time black actors scored nods in every acting category

By Mike Miller
January 24, 2017 09:09 AM
Credit: Everett

After sparking increased controversy over the past two years, the Oscars has produced one of its most diverse crop of nominees ever.

Following the nominations announcement Tuesday morning, a number of high-profile performances and films featuring actors of color have been recognized for top honors, including Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, Dev Patel, Ruth Negga, Octavia Spencer, Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris.

Following a complete shut-out for the past two years, this marks the first time in the Academy’s history that black actors have been nominated in every acting category — Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress — at the same time. (The closest to the record was in 2013, when three nominations were spread across three acting categories).

Films like Fences, Hidden Figures, Moonlight and Lion all figured prominently in this year’s nominations — and each scored a Best Picture nod. All feature diverse casts and crews, and have found critical acclaim as well as box-office success last year.

The Best Supporting Actress category was especially diverse this year, with three black nominees: Davis, Harris and Spencer. It’s the first time more than one black actress has been nominated in that category since 1985, when The Color Purple’s Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey both scored noms.

Davis also made history as the first black actress to get three nominations. Spencer is only the third black actress to get a second nomination — after Davis and Whoopi Goldberg. Meanwhile, Washington earned his seventh acting nomination. (He won the Best Actor award in 2002 for Training Day, and a Best Supporting Actor trophy in 1990 for Glory.)

The Best Documentary Feature category was also particularly diverse, with Ava DuVernay earning a nod for her documentary, The 13th — which comes after she was famously overlooked for a directing nod for Selma. Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro, about writer and social critic James Baldwin, was also nominated, alongside Ezra Edelman for OJ: Made in America, and Roger Ross Williams for Life: Made in America.

August Wilson was also posthumously nominated for his screenplay for Fences — even as Washington failed to earn a Best Director nod for helming the film despite his Best Actor nod.

The jolt of diversity could not come at a better time for the awards show after it failed to nominate a single actor of color for two consecutive years. While the lack of black nominees sparked outrage in the lead-up to the shows, the pattern was unfortunately nothing new. In fact, the drought once stretched for six years straight, when only white actors were nominated from 1975 to 1981. Even more telling, in the award show’s first 63 years, only 26 black actors were nominated, according to The Washington Post.

The rate had been steadily increasing over the past 25 years, during which over a dozen more actors of color were nominated than in the show’s previous six decades. Even more encouraging, eleven black actors have won an Oscar since 1991, compared with just four in previous years.

But the past decade saw another steep decline in black nominees, a trend that came to a head in the last two years. Viral hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite and outspoken celebrities (like Will and Jada Smith) sparked change, with the Academy finally taking measures to increase diversity by adding twice as many new voters, almost half of whom were women or people of color.

But the credit for the growing number of diverse nominees this year goes chiefly to the films and actors themselves. While diverse films like Straight Outta Compton and Creed performed well at the box office last year, 2016 has produced a more Oscar-friendly group of contenders.

This year’s crop also features award-season favorites like Washington, Davis and Spencer, all of whom have already either won or been nominated for an Oscar. Last year’s group of Oscar hopefuls included no black actors with previous nominations, except for Will Smith, whose film Concussion was met with mixed reviews.

Like 2015, 2016’s slate also saw a promising collection of diverse newcomers — but unlike the previous year, some of them will have a chance to take home the gold statue. Loving’s Ruth Negga and Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali been nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, respectively.

Be sure to stick with PEOPLE, including the PEOPLE/Entertainment Weekly Network for everything Oscars, leading up to the big show on Feb. 26.