Each Wednesday through the week of the 2019 Academy Award nominations on Jan. 22, Take 2 is handicapping the Oscar rush with The Award Chase.
Two years ago this week, I wrote about the impact of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite on the film industry and awards season and interviewed April Reign, the creator behind the viral moment. The movement came as the Academy Awards failed to nominate a person of color in any of the acting categories in 2015 and 2016. Later in 2016, the Academy expanded its membership with more inclusion and a younger crowd. In 2017, the field was more reflective of the world in which audiences exist, and “Moonlight,” a contemporary story with an all-black cast, won best picture.
The British Academy of Film and Television Arts, however, took its push for inclusion even further in 2016 by not only expanding its membership, but it also changed its rules for the best British film and best British debut film categories. According to the rules, films that are submitted to these two categories must follow at least two of the the British Film Institute’s Diversity Standards:
- On-screen representation, themes and narratives;
- Project leadership and creative practitioners;
- Industry access and opportunities;
- Opportunities for diversity in audience development.
The changes were to go into effect this year, and they became official in 2018. When they were first announced, the reactions were mixed. Some feared that if there is a push for diversity, celebrated films like “Skyfall” would not qualify for the best British film award as it centers around a white male lead with very few minority and female cast members in top roles.
Reign said that the wave of diversity seen in 2017 were of movies that had been greenlit or in production prior to #OscarsSoWhite, so this year’s offerings are more reflective of its impact.
For years, British actors of color have been vocal about their lack of role opportunities in their native industry. Idris Elba addressed the House of Commons in 2016 about the lack of roles for black actors in television. Many have been encouraged to seek roles in the U.S. and have seen success that way, like Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out,” “Black Panther” and “Widows”), Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave” and “Doctor Strange”) and David Oyelowo (“Selma,” “Red Tails” and “Queen of Katwe”).
With all these changes in place, what is the frontrunner for the new and improved best British film award? As it meets at least two of the diversity standards and is playing in Northeast Pennsylvania, that would be “Mary Queen of Scots.” Starring Saoirse Ronan in the title role and Margot Robbie as her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, the period costume film features a diverse cast in dominant roles. Actors of colors are rarely included in or even the subject of British biopics, but “Mary Queen of Scots” has Adrian Lester, Gemma Chan and Ismael Cruz Cordova in its cast. Adrian Derrick-Palmer, Nathan East and Izuka Hoyle are in supporting roles.
According to director Josie Rourke, a theater director making her film debut, while the film is a period piece, its casting is a mirror of a contemporary British audience. In an interview with Los Angeles Times, Rourke explained her process.
“This is partly because of my background in theater, but I was really clear with Working Title and Focus, and they were very supportive, that I was not going to direct an all-white period drama. That’s it. It’s just not a thing I was going to do. It’s not a thing that I do in theater and I don’t want to do it in film.” – Josie Rourke
It comes as no surprise that Lester would be on Rourke’s radar. Lester is a celebrated Shakespearean actor of the British stage but is rarely cast in classically themed films. He is Lord Randolph, the British ambassador to Scotland who is a go-between for the two queens.
Chan, best known for her roles in the British TV series “Humans” and the box office hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” plays Lady Bess of Hardwick, an adviser to Queen Elizabeth and Mary’s jailer. She continues to rise with a role in the upcoming “Captain Marvel.” In an interview with Vogue UK, Chan detailed how she wasn’t even allowed to audition for period dramas in her career, as many filmmakers excluded Asians in their productions. She also compared Rourke’s casting choices to that of the Broadway sensation, “Hamilton.”
“I think Hamilton was described as ‘America then’ played by ‘America now.’ This is ‘England then’ portrayed by ‘England now.’ It’s about time.” – Gemma Chen
Cruz Cordova is David Rizzio, the personal secretary and friend of Mary. The Puerto Rican-born actor is one of the film’s few American cast members (you can include Bronx-born Ronan in that bunch). He has a string of television roles, including “Sesame Street” and “Ray Donovan.”
“Mary Queen of Scots” also meets the criteria of featuring underrepresented populations behind the cinema, with Rourke at the helm, and attracting a diverse audience. In some instances, Rourke had to fight for scenes that were directly for a female audience, such as the politics and policing of women’s bodies.
Some viewers have applauded Rourke’s colorblind casting.
Black people in Mary, Queen of Scots- huzzah!
— The Duchess Royal (@Kellybelle312) December 29, 2018
Yep. Saw Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots” this weekend and distinctly noticed that several black men appear in both Mary and Elizabeth’s courts and Elizabeth’s main lady in waiting is played by Gemma Chan. The film just does it and doesn’t draw attention to it once.
— CRT (@StoryofEverest) December 28, 2018
Many have criticized it for replacing historical figures who were known as white with people of color.
So lemme get this right they white washed ghost in the shell & death note (more I can't think of off the top of my head) .. yet they have an Asian woman in Mary queen of Scots..?? Lmao who is actually doing the casting for these ?
— CeCe (@aolilacyuta) October 23, 2018
Mary Queen of Scots was I think well casted for the major roles but not the minor ones. Mainly because the cast was too racially diverse for that location & time in history. Plus they wore way too much solid black. It was interesting though
— Kit (@ArborFelice) January 1, 2019
‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Fact Check: Was Queen Elizabeth’s Ambassador Actually Black? https://t.co/HzRrWa0bRe “I was really clear, I would not direct an all-white period drama,” …and that's why the movie sucks
— Robert Ford (@MrBobNewtonFord) December 27, 2018
“Mary Queen of Scots” has so far been nominated for two Screen Actors Guild awards for Ronan and Robbie. The BAFTA nominations will be announced on Jan. 9 and broadcast on Feb. 10 with Joanna Lumley (“Absolutely Fabulous and “The Wolf of Wall Street”) returning as host. Several BAFTA members are also Academy members, so the BAFTAs are often seen as a precursor to the Hollywood event.