Two of the seven who could have an especially momentous night.
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By Claire Zillman
February 26, 2017

The Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences will handout 24 awards during its annual film award ceremony Sunday night, but some of the statues will come with a bit more cache than others. If they take Oscar home, seven of the evening’s female nominees will etch their place in history.

1. Meryl Streep

President Donald Trump may think Meryl Streep is an overrated actor, but the Academy has pointed to her, time and again, as one of the industry’s best. If Streep wins the Best Actress award for her role in Florence Foster Jenkins she will tie the legendary Katharine Hepburn for the most acting awards at four. Streep’s nomination alone made history; she broke her own record for most nominations for a single person. She has 2o, well ahead of those in second place with 12: Hepburn and Jack Nicholson. Streep’s portrayal of Jenkins, an heiress from New York City who’s overconfident in her own operatic talent, earned her Best Actress nominations at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards, but she lost out to Emma Stone, star of La La Land, both times.

2. Ava DuVernay

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DuVernay was famously skipped over for her work on the Martin Luther King, Jr., biopic Selma in 2015, when the Academy failed her nominate her for Best Director. Her snub and others fueled the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which deplored the failure of any minority actor to garner a nod in all four major performance categories. This year, she’s in the running for Best Documentary for 13th, which examines the roots of the United States’ incarceration epidemic. She’s the first black female director to earn a nomination in the category, meaning she’d be the first-ever to win.

3. Octavia Spencer

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Here’s a crazy stat: No black woman who’s ever won an Academy Award has never been nominated for another. Spencer’s nomination broke that streak, so she’d be the first-ever black woman to win multiple Oscars if she snags a statue Sunday night. In 2012, she won Best Supporting Actress for The Help. She’s up for that same award this year for her portrayal of NASA pioneer Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures, a movie about the African-American female mathematicians who played a vital role in the early years of the U.S. space program.

4. Viola Davis

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Davis already has two Tony awards and an Emmy, so she needs an Oscar statue to fill out her collection and become the first black person to win what’s considered the Triple Crown of acting. Only 22 people have ever achieved the feat. That could happen Sunday night as she’s nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the film adaptation of Fences, an August Wilson play. Davis’s portrayal of Rose Maxson in the film about a black sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh has already added trophies to her mantle; she picked up a Golden Globe and SAG Award for the role.

5. Kimberly Steward

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Steward either has beginners’ luck or the golden touch or some amalgamation of the two. Manchester by the Sea, a tearjerker about a handyman’s homecoming following his brother’s death, was the first scripted film Steward ever produced, and it’s earned her a nod for Best Picture. She and Oprah Winfrey are the only two black female producers to be nominated in the category, but Winfrey’s Selma lost out to Birdman in 2015, so Steward could make history if Manchester takes home this year’s top prize.

6. Joi McMillon

McMillon with fellow "Moonlight" editor Nat Sanders.
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After more than 10 years of being the No. 2 on editing teams, McMillon became lead editor on Moonlight, a coming-of-age tale of a young African-American man confronting his sexuality in Miami. She certainly made the most of the opportunity, earning a nomination for Film Editing. She’s the first black woman to ever receive the honor, meaning she’d be the first to win.

7. Ai-Ling Lee

Iatrow Morgan and Lee.
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This year’s frontrunner La La Land, a film about two aspiring entertainers enduring the ups and downs of show business, could break Oscars’ record for most wins as it competes in 14 categories, but sound editor Ai-Ling Lee is hoping to make some history of her own. Her work on La La Land earned her an Oscar nomination for sound editing, and if she wins she’ll be the first Asian women to do so. Plus, she and sound editing supervisor Mildred Iatrou Morgan are the first-ever female duo to get the sound editing nod. “It’s surprising (on the nomination), but I feel happy we have more and more women in our sound craft,” Lee told CNN. “Hopefully, there will be more.”

All seven women could break ground Sunday evening, but overall, the Oscars—chided year after year for its lack of diversity—is still dominated by men. Outside of the acting awards, which have their own gender-specific categories, women made up just 20% of the nominees, according to a study by the Women’s Media Center, a non-profit founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and writer Robin Morgan. And that woeful share is actually down two percentage points from last year.

The most blatant boys’ club is the category of cinematography, which has—for the Oscars’ entire 89-year history—never seen a female nominee. Women are also absent among director nominees; for the seventh year in a row, no female directors are in the running for the award. Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the prize in 2008 for Hurt Locker, and she remains the sole female winner.

Women may be scarce in these award categories because they are scarce in the profession’s upper echelon overall. San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found last month that just 17% of directors, writers, producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the 250 top-grossing films in the U.S. in 2016 were women.

Viola Davis got to the heart of the problem in 2015 in her Emmys acceptance speech, when she referenced being the first African-American to win for best actress in a drama. “Let me tell you something,” said Davis. “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”

 

 

 

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