March 24, 2023
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ColumnsPopped Culture

Column: The Oscars best actress drama

On Jan. 24, the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences unveiled the 2023 Oscar nominations to the world.

As usual, many of the year’s biggest contenders were met with expected praise. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” led the pack with 11 nominations, getting four acting nominations along the way. “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” were the next biggest contenders with nine nominations a piece. In this regard, the Oscar nominations did right by honoring many of the most deserving and unique films of the year.

However, as it often occurs with the Academy, there were some shocking omissions this year — and one unprecedented inclusion in the Best Actress line-up that launched an ongoing controversy online about campaign tactics and privilege.

Danielle Deadwyler and Viola Davis were considered strong contenders in the Lead Actress category for their performances in “Till” and “The Woman King,” respectively. In the true story of “Till,” Deadwyler portrays Mamie Till-Mobley as she fights for justice after her son, Emmett Till, is lynched on a trip in Mississippi. Deadwyler’s performance is nothing short of stirring and powerful, and reviews showered Deadwyler with praise. Early on in awards season, it seemed like she could compete for the win — even against strong contenders like Michelle Yeoh in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and Cate Blanchett in “Tár.” While the film struggled to gain traction in other categories, Deadwyler received nominations at BAFTA, the Critics Choice Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards — three of the four key precursors leading up to the Oscars — and yet was still left out of the category come nomination morning.

In “The Woman King,” Davis plays fierce leader General Nanisca after her group of all-female warriors faces a life-threatening attack. The film was critically acclaimed and performed well at the box office, grossing $94.3 million on a $50 million budget. Given that it was a historical epic with stunning cinematography and combat sequences, it seemed like it would be right up the Oscars’ alley. Davis was one of the few actresses this year to receive all four precursor nominations for lead actress: the Golden Globes, BAFTA, Critics Choice Awards and Screen Actors Guild. And she still managed to be left out at the Oscars.

So how did these two talented Black actresses manage to miss out on the prestigious Oscars nomination? While we will never know the exact voting results from the Academy, making it difficult to tell who took whose spot, one thing can be said with confidence: Andrea Riseborough’s nomination for “To Leslie” came as a total shocker.

“To Leslie” follows Leslie Rowlands (Riseborough), a single mother that wins a local Texas lottery before spending all of the money on drugs and alcohol. The story largely follows her struggles reconnecting with the life she used to live. The small, independent film was not seen or talked about by many prior to the weeks when Oscars voting period was happening, lacking the kind of money and backing to build a traditionally successful awards campaign.

Many of Riseborough’s famous friends, including Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Jennifer Aniston, suddenly started showering her performance with praise online during the window of Oscar voting. When Blanchett won the award for Best Actress at the Critics Choice Awards — among mentions of Tang Wei and Penélope Cruz — she even mentioned Riseborough in her speech. If you spent any time on Twitter in the past few weeks, Riseborough’s name became inescapable.

After Riseborough was nominated, people online seemed divided on the tactics used to get her name into the conversation. Some called it a true grassroots campaign, celebrating that a little independent film got a big boost from her fellow actors. And here’s the thing: on paper, this sounds great. It’s rare that the Academy recognizes smaller, more subtle performances. Riseborough is an extremely talented and underrated actor who isn’t afraid to take on unique roles in smaller films. I’m sure she gives a great performance in “To Leslie.” But the fact of the matter is that Riseborough is a privileged, white actress with a lot of friends in Hollywood who helped her get nominated. And her inclusion came at the expense of a spot that could’ve gone to a talented, deserving black actress. Where was this so-called “grassroots” campaign for black actresses like Deadwyler, who also starred in a smaller independent film? Where was this kind of support for Alfre Woodard in “Clemency” in 2019, who could’ve really used it to gain traction for her acclaimed performance that went unnoticed by most awards bodies?

A few days after nominations were announced, the Academy announced that they are “conducting a review of campaign procedures.” Many people online have speculated whether or not Riseborough will be ultimately disqualified from a nomination entirely for breaking the Academy’s rules. Nominations have been rescinded a few times before, but never in an acting category.

Some of the questions regarding the ethics of it all come from the involvement of actor Frances Fisher, who was actively posting about Riseborough on Instagram while referencing her competition. If Fisher were found to be involved with the campaign team directly, this could be in direct violation of the Academy’s rules of singling out competition by name or title.

Regardless of whether Riseborough’s campaign team actually went against any established rules, the in-your-face lobbying techniques and specifically asking people to post about her performance online seemed excessive. This is not a true “grassroots” campaign, as her team wants you to believe. It’s about a woman who used her Hollywood connections to get a seat at a table — a table that historically (and currently) excludes people of color from the conversation.

Matt Minton can be reached at