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Big Wins for Diversity, 'Nomadland' at BAFTAs

"Nomadland," directed by Chloé Zhao, won the BAFTA award for Best Film.
"Nomadland," directed by Chloé Zhao, won the BAFTA award for Best Film. By Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
By Zachary J. Lech, Contributing Writer

Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” was not the only big winner of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards, held on the weekend of April 10. Unlike in previous years, this ceremony marked one of the first times there weren’t widespread — and rightful — accusations of a lack of diversity among the ceremony's winners.

Winning four awards including Best Film, “Nomadland” emerged as the clear victor of the night. A drama based on a non-fiction book of the same name, the film tells the story of contemporary nomads traversing America in RVs in the wake of the 2008 recession. Its victory over two British productions was a testament to the film’s strength, as it prevailed in spite of BAFTA’s habit of favoring UK pictures — which would ultimately be borne out by its Oscar win.

Most notable are the film’s two female winners. The Best Director award for Chloé Zhao’s achievement marks the first time in BAFTAs history that an Asian woman won in the category, and only the second time that a female director did so since 2010, when Kathryn Bigelow earned the golden mask and the Oscar for “The Hurt Locker.”

Frances McDormand’s portrayal of the protagonist landed her the BAFTA for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Despite the fact there was little overlap between BAFTA and Oscar nominees in this category, the actress went on to repeat her success at the Academy Awards.

While the nominees at the two might have differed, overlap still seems to be the key word for the 74th BAFTAs. The British Academy managed to call the Oscar races for not just Best Picture and Best Director, but also the two screenplay and all four acting categories.

Anthony Hopkins and Youn Yuh-jung broke the records for the oldest winner in their respective categories and subverted expectations. Hopkins’s victory recognized his performance as the titular character in Florian Zeller's "The Father" (a film that also won Best Adapted Screenplay at both ceremonies), about an elderly parent who refuses any assistance from his daughter as he ages. As acclaimed as Hopkins' performance was, his win came as quite a shock, and anticipated the upset at the Oscars — the clear favorite, the late “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom” star Chadwick Boseman lost both, despite a history-making record for four Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations earlier this year.

Youn Yuh-jung winning Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her exquisite portrayal of her character in “Minari” — which also happens to be the first ever Korean-language performance to win a BAFTA — wasn’t much of an upset in and of itself. But her victory over the Oscar-nominated “Borat” actress Maria Bakalova, combined with the fact that “The Father”’s Olivia Coleman wasn’t even nominated (a rather telling snub as she is British), correctly pointed that the “deliciously chaotic” race for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award might have been much less competitive than critics thought.

Unlike Youn Yuh-jung, Daniel Kaluuya’s award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal of Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah” was hardly unexpected in light of his SAG. Just like in the case of the Korean actress, though, the subsequent Academy Award win reiterated that the accolade was more than justified.

The awards for the technical side of production were dominated by “Sound of Metal” and “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.” The former, exploring the world of the deaf community, fittingly won the statue for sound, and another one for editing. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” might not have been up for consideration for its cinematography, but nevertheless it was recognized by the Academy for costume design as well as make-up and hair. The awards for these films produced by Amazon and Netflix respectively prove that the video streaming giants can compete with established movie studios, at least when it comes to their visuals.

Viewers looking for films differing from Hollywood productions should pay a closer look to the awards in which BAFTA honors the best British productions. In the Outstanding British Film category, the winner was “Promising Young Woman” (which also won both BAFTA and Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) but the nominees also included excellent horror films (a genre that the Academy doesn't usually touch), such as “Saint Maud” and “His House,” as well as the social dramas “Mogul Mowgli” and “Rocks.” The Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer award went to Remi Weekes, the screenwriter and director of "His House,” for whom the horror film served as a medium to illuminate the experiences of immigrants from South Sudan living in London. Bukky Bakray became the second woman of color to win the Rising Star Award after the 19-year-old’s phenomenal debut in “Rocks,” in which she portrays a girl struggling to take care of her younger brother after being abandoned by their single mother.

The long list of “firsts” and the more diverse ensemble of winners are a testament to BAFTA’s newfound commitment to diversity. The awards had long been lambasted for their lack of it, and incurred heavy criticism after last year’s all white acting nominations. Following the outcry, the BAFTA instituted over 120 changes after a seven month review process, which included diversifying its membership, requiring its members to watch all the nominated films, and restructuring its voting process to ensure that less mainstream productions have a fair chance of being recognized.

The BAFTAs didn’t disappoint this year, proving an exciting bellwether for the Academy Awards, and correctly calling some of the most competitive races. There’s no denying that the 74th ceremony differed from previous years — the changes were not just the result of a pandemic, but of long-awaited greater recognition of minority and independent artists.

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